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Drilling for Water

"I think we need to educate people on conserving more. People waste so much water."
by Published on
Photo by Jen Reel
John Ebert

John Ebert owns and operates Harvey’s Water Wells, a well drilling and water pump servicing company in Brenham. Ebert’s father started the company in 1978. Now Ebert and his son run the business. This summer’s soaring temperatures and relentless drought meant Ebert and his crew sometimes worked up to 18 hours a day digging new wells, repairing old pumps and lowering existing pumps so families could access dropping water tables.

“I actually grew up in North Africa. My dad worked the oil fields. I lived in Libya until I was almost 15. When we got back here, my dad was used to making a lot better money. We had this farm that we’d been paying for since the ’50s, so he tried to work here but couldn’t make any money. So he went to Venezuela and worked for two years. When he came back my mother said, ‘That’s enough traveling!’ So we went to work for Exxon drilling shot holes. We did that for awhile but we were still living out of motels … so my dad started sub-contracting drilling water wells. I was still in college. When I got out of junior college, he decided he’d buy another rig and I would run it. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll do this for awhile.’ I drilled for Exxon for two years and then I started doing the water wells too. And now my son started.

“In Washington County, when we first went into business, a one-horse power pump was big—10 gallons per minute. Now the people that have moved in here want three times that much. They all want sprinkler systems around their homes. They all want to keep an acre around their house green. Everything has to be beautiful. These farmers around here never did that. There’s a couple that lived with a hand-dug well that barely made any water. They had a bucket and a little bitty electric pump. Well, we drilled that well and it made a nice well, and the wife said, ‘Oh, this is so wonderful. Now I’ll be able to have my green grass around my home.’ And that old German man said, ‘If God wanted that grass to be green, it would rain.’

“When we first went into business the hand-dug wells were [30-50 feet], and then we were drilling wells anywhere from 100-300 feet. Now I won’t stop in anything around 100 feet anymore. If it’s not 200-400 feet it doesn’t make sense, because it’s not going to last. Drought and population growth are the problems. You know, in [an average] year, water would go down about a foot. And now, I drilled a well for our farm, and we lost 16 feet in two years.

“I think we need to educate people on conserving more. People waste so much water. They don’t realize. You can go through my neighborhood and it could be raining and someone’s sprinkler system is [on]. That’s city water, but … it’s coming from Lake Somerville. It just seems like they don’t have compassion for their neighbors. One thing I noticed this summer, I gave up a lot of big money jobs several times to help families that were out of water, but the people that wanted those big jobs done weren’t in a bind. I would tell them, ‘Well, I’ve got this family out of water,’ and they would cut me off in the conversation. They really weren’t interested and didn’t care. And that surprised me that in a time of drought, people were so selfish.”

“I was at a supply house and we had an inch and a half of rain the other day and this guy said to me, ‘Boy, I guess we’re in pretty good shape now, aren’t we?’ and I said, ‘No, we’re not.’ He said, ‘Well, it helped, didn’t it?’ I said, ‘Well, it helped, but there’s no way it even came close. We’ve got a long way to go yet.”’

Jen Reel was an Observer intern before joining the staff in July 2010, first as Web Editor, and most recently as Multimedia Editor. She received a Masters in Journalism with a concentration in Photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was co-chair for the student chapter of the National Press Photographers Association. She has worked in the non-profit sector for the Peruvian-American Medical Society and has been published in Utne Reader magazine, the Village Voice and Pitchfork Music.