After the Storm, a Salty Well

May 17, 2018

 

Peter McMahon is an architect in South Wellfleet. After a major storm in January, his freshwater well turned to salt.
Credit Pien Huang

In the first week of February, Peter McMahon had the worst morning. He tried to make coffee with his tap water—and realized it was salt water.

 

It was a bad wake up call.

McMahon is an architect in South Wellfleet. He lives on a half-acre lot, covered in pine trees, right by the Bay. It’s a place his family has owned for decades.

Like most homeowners on the outer Cape, McMahon gets his water from a private well and he’s never had a problem with it.

But now, in his kitchen, his bathroom, his shower, the faucets were churning out something slippery and gross. “It was just bad, swampy salt water,” he says.

Back in the first week of January, the Northeast was hit by a bomb cyclone. It was basically a blizzard, with really high winds. It brought a historic storm surge, breaking the previous 1978 record, and flooding parts of the Cape that hadn’t flooded in years.

McMahon’s property hadn’t actually flooded, but a month later, his well was putting out salty water. “What I think happened,” he says, “Is that it got into the aquifer, and it took a few weeks to get over to my well.”

He tested his water. The salt content was sky high: 1400 mg/L, 70 times over the state's recommended limit. It also contained a dangerous amount of nitrates.

For weeks, McMahon showered and washed his dishes in this swampy water. For cooking and drinking water, he filled up a 5-gallon jug in the mop sink of the Wellfleet Public Library.

But he didn’t want to do this forever, so he consulted a well-digger on a new place to put a well.

It had to be sited higher up, away from the water. It also had to be at least 100 feet away from any septic field. He had to apply for special permission to site a well adjacent to his property.

Hillary Greenberg-Lemos, Health and Conservation agent for the town of Wellfleet, thinks she'll hear about more salty wells when people return for the summer.
Credit Pien Huang

Hillary Greenberg-Lemos is the Health and Conservation agent for the town of Wellfleet. She’s worked in the town for thirteen years, but McMahon’s situation took her by surprise. “We have some wells around town that are really high in sodium, but none that had it happen spontaneously like that,” she says.

He’s the only person she’s heard from so far, but she thinks she’ll hear of more cases once people come back for the summer. Looking at a map of McMahon’s neighborhood, she thinks there could be up to eight more affected homes.

Greg Berman, a coastal processes specialist with Woods Hole Sea Grant and the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, says the problem with Peter’s well is very local, but it’s an early indicator of how things are changing.

“These events are probably going to happen more frequently, just because our water level is higher,” he says. “Even if you haven’t moved, the water is moving towards you.”

Berman says January’s record-breaking storm surge, which brought lots of coastal flooding, only beat the 1978 record by one or two inches. In the past forty years, sea level has risen by four or five inches.

“The only reason that this storm in January broke the old record is because the water level was higher due to sea level rise," he says.

And the forecast for the future? More sea level rise and bigger, stronger storms.

Back in South Wellfleet, Peter hired Neil Gadwa, a local well-driller, to put in a new well. It’s only about 200 feet away from the old well and 6 feet higher up, but the water is completely different. “It’s very good water,” Peter says. “Neil said I could bottle it and sell it. Like Poland Springs.”

He’s not sure how long it’ll last, but he hopes it will be awhile. For now, he’s back to enjoying that simple thing – a glass of fresh water straight from the tap.

 

Peter's new well, on a paper road next to his lot, is about 200 feet away from the old well and 6 feet higher up. The water is completely different, with low levels of sodium and nitrates.