Some midwesterners find faucets running dry

WYATT, MO - JULY 18: A buoy used to help guide barges rests on the bank after the water level dropped on the Mississippi River July 18, 2012 near Wyatt, Missouri. Some barge operators have lightened their loads or stopped running altogether on the lower Mississippi because of low water levels. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Scott Olson

(CBS/AP) After months of record-breaking heat and drought, many rural Americans who rely on wells for water are getting an unwelcome surprise when they turn on their faucets: The tap has run dry.

The lack of running water can range from a manageable nuisance to an expensive headache. Homeowners and businesses are being forced to buy thousands of gallons from private suppliers, to drill deeper or to dig entirely new wells.

Mary Lakin's family drained the last of its well water late last month in the small northern Indiana community of Parr. Since then, Lakin, her husband and two children have bathed and done laundry at relatives' homes and filled buckets from their backyard pool every time they need to flush a toilet.

Having water is "just something you take for granted," she said. "It's a big hassle, but we're surviving."

No one tracks the number of wells that go dry, but state and local governments and well diggers and water haulers report many more dead wells than in a typical summer across a wide swath of the Midwest.

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Robert Mason, a scientist with the U.S. Geographical Survey, said the hydrological drought is affecting Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Indiana the most.

It's not unusual for rural wells to stop producing toward the end of a hot summer. But this year is different. Some of the same wells that are known to run dry in August or September instead ran out in June.

Dr. Mike Daniels, who works with farms in Arkansas as a part of the University of Cooperative Extension Service, said he notice this year's drought kick in as early as April.

"We usually get a pretty good rainfall distribution in April, May [in Arkansas]," Daniels said, "but this [drought] has been for 5 or 6 months and we didn't get rainfall in the winter months."

In the Midwest, water suppliers and well drillers say they're working long hours to keep up with demand.

"It's seven days a week, man," said Carl Marion, a water hauler in Athens, Ill., north of Springfield. "I work until 12 or 1 o'clock every single night."

Wells are typically drilled 30 or 50 feet down. Some go hundreds of feet before hitting water. And the deeper the well, the more expensive it is, with costs starting at several thousand dollars and climbing in extreme cases into tens of thousands.

(Instead of corn, some farmers have turn to drought-friendly sorghum. Michelle Miller reports.)

In the summer, when lawns, gardens, pools and livestock all drive up use, water levels can drop below a well's pump. If rain doesn't replenish the supply, sometimes the only option is to drill deeper or dig an entirely new well.

Older wells are particularly vulnerable because they may not hold water as efficiently or they may have been dug in places where most of the water is gone.

"It's sort of Darwinism," said George Roadcap, a hydro-geologist with the Illinois Water Survey. "The weak wells get shaken out at a time like this. Many people are using wells that are a hundred years old."