Digging for a well for a horse ranch

Falling in love with our New Mexico property was the easy part—not only were the 55 acres of rolling hills studded with juniper trees and pinyon pines and covered in native blue grama grass, but they were surrounded by a half dozen mountain ranges.

My husband Kenny Weber and I envisioned our horses traversing those hills, getting fit while escaping the heat and humidity of southern Texas. But we found the prospect of starting from scratch daunting. With water availability a key issue through-out much of the Southwest, we were rolling the dice. Would we find enough water there to sustain our horses as well as ourselves year-round? Or would we resign ourselves to hauling water in—at a steep price—and making our dream a seasonal one?

Some of our neighbors had excellent-producing wells; others did not have such good fortune. But about a half mile from our property was a windmill-fed stock tank that reportedly had never gone dry in 100 years.

“When I saw the stock tank just north of me and learned it had never failed in a century, that sealed my decision to buy because it was clear to me there was a reliable, year-round streamflow in the wash,” said our neighbor Karl Phaler. “While ascertaining its exact main course might be difficult, the default solution to well-siting was simply to put it up close to the wash,” he added.

That windmill and stock tank on the corner, and Karl’s endorsement of its longevity, gave us the courage to move forward.

Now we needed to find a well driller.

We learned of an outfit—Elliott Brothers Drilling—out of Pie Town that used the ancient art of dowsing for water to help pinpoint the most auspicious locations to drill. Kathy Elliott had the gift, and now her son Jesse did. It’s a controversial practice but a popular one in these drought-stricken times.

“This is the place”

While the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) contends there is no scientific basis for dowsing, a peer-reviewed study published by the German government documented an impressive success rate for dowsers who were able to predict both the depth of the water source and the yield of the well to within 10 to 20 percent in rural Sri Lanka, Zaire, Kenya, Namibia and Yemen over a 10-year drought period.

We thought of it as another part of our water-seeking tool kit.

Walter Elliott and his son Jesse met us at the property the day after we contacted them. Nothing escaped their attention, from slope and terrain to ant mounds. As described in the previous installment, “Falling in Love With New Mexico” (EQUUS 477), Jesse strode off purposefully with a pair of brass rods (some dowsers use a forked stick, pendulum or other device). Jesse walked the road and then headed uphill, as if guided by an unseen force, with the rods stretched out before him. Suddenly, the rods snapped together at a spot near the northwest corner of the property, partway up a rise.

“This is the place,” Jesse said quietly.

At a looming cost of $25 per drilled foot and with no guarantees, we took a deep breath and said, “Go for it.”

Drilling begins

After we obtained the necessary permits from the State of New Mexico, Albuquerque office (including filing the precise GPS coordinates of the proposed well and paying a fee of $125), the Elliotts brought their drilling rig to the property. Just moving the rig is a huge task: It consists of a towering derrick, a support truck with 300 to 400 feet of drill pipe and a huge air compressor.

The Elliotts use what is called a down-the-hole (DTH) hammer rather than the more common tricone roller. It’s basically a giant jackhammer positioned directly behind the drill bit. It is considered one of the fastest ways to break up rocks and as a result, it revolutionized the quarry industry.

“We found we could drill faster and more efficiently with air,” said Elliott. “We also drill with mud, but air is so much faster and cleaner, so we use it whenever we can.” The pneumatic approach worked for our well, because the material being drilled was mostly compressed volcanic ash, sandstone and clays, some of which were sandy and gravelly.

On the first day, the crew dug. And dug. And dug. They made it to 150 feet by day’s end, with nothing to show for their efforts. Elliott called and asked if we’d like them to continue drilling in the morning.

We took another deep breath and said, “Keep going.”

As they drilled on the second day, Kenny and I waited anxiously for news of the well. Around 3 p.m. I noticed I had a voicemail from Walter. He sounded excited.

“We hit water at around 235 feet, and it looks like you’ll have plenty,” he said.

Relief and joy flooded our thoughts. When all was said and done and re-corded, it looked like we’d have a nice producing well of about 20 gallons per minute (gpm), well beyond the 12 gpm often recommended for horse properties.

Now we could continue planning our dream ranch in the mountains of New Mexico with confidence.

The wellhead was cased with heavy-duty, four-and-a-half-inch PVC pipe and capped for the winter, awaiting installation of a well pump and storage cistern. Our goal is to store enough water for a week or more—always a good idea where livestock are concerned. As soon as the ground thawed and we’ve decided on barn- and home-building sites, we’d be able to run underground water lines up the hill to those sites. Horse water comes first!

A solar well pump?

Our next big decision would be whether to install a solar-powered well pump or simply extend electrical power a short distance to supply power to the pump. Solar seems like a good choice in New Mexico, given the high number of sunny days. A minimum of six hours a day of sun is recommended for most solar installations.

Karl’s well is solar-powered, and Elliott added his thumbs up. “I like solar,” he said without hesitation. His personal solar pump has never missed a day in more than three years. He recommended Grundfos, a world leader in renewable energy (solar panels and wind turbines). Kenny and I are all for that as well as being as much off the grid as we can on our new ranch.

The unit we chose would need to pump water a total of 300 feet (vertically) to reach from the bot- tom of the well to structures on top of the hill. We’d need to trench with a backhoe about three feet deep to bury the water lines and protect them from freezing. “In a normal year, you might not need to go that deep, but you can get a serious freeze in some years,” cautioned Elliott.

Meanwhile, the corner posts of the fence had been installed before the first freeze. Since then, Kenny and I spent many a winter’s evening home on our Texas ranch poring over building plans and changing our minds at least twice a week about what to build.

Our latest game plan was to meet a local builder at the property in March to go over site design and preliminary construction plans for a horse facility including tack room and wash racks, hay storage unit, feed shed and house. We don’t plan to keep horses in the barn other than for special needs on a temporary basis, such as our senior Arabian mare who often becomes chilled in cold rain.

Finding water was the first major milestone of our ranch-building adventure. The dream was beginning to take shape.

Coming next: Site planning

This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #378)




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