FISHER — MJ Shields grew up about a mile from where she now lives in the country between Fisher and Dewey.
"That's why I moved out there, because I love to be in the country," Shields said of her home of the past three years.
But country living took a downturn for Shields and several other neighbors during the summer. Their wells dried up, and in their opinion a nearby irrigation unit that went online this year might be the culprit.
Shields said the well problem ruined her summer "to say the least."
"You could not have people over," she said. "You can't put a price on that. You can't do laundry; you can't run a dishwasher."
Shields had to take out a second mortgage on her home to pay for a deeper well to be drilled.
The last few months have been an emotional time for her.
"It's frustrating, and it's very upsetting," the 56-year-old Shields said.
Her well dried up July 30. She wasn't able to get water pumped to her home until the new well became operational Sept. 10.
For the first 17 days Shields was without water, she had to buy jugs of water for home use and wash her clothes at a laundromat, which was difficult to do because she got off work after they all had closed.
Things would have been even worse were it not for the kindness of her neighbors, Harriet and Lyle Cox.
"Mr. and Mrs. Cox were very good to me," Shields said.
They brought her a 1,000-gallon water wagon, which was filled three times.
Shields wasn't the only resident in the Dewey-Foosland-Fisher area whose well either dried up or nearly did so during the summer. Harriet Cox, who lives near Fisher, said 13 families were represented at a recent meeting in Fisher to discuss the problem. Cox and her husband own a rental property whose well went dry.
Curt Shields of Rantoul, whose family operates the irrigation unit in question and several other irrigation systems in the area, said he was told by his well driller that the unit couldn't have caused the problem. Shields said the irrigation unit taps into the Mahomet Aquifer, which is 150 to 200 feet beneath the surface, while the residents whose wells have dried up draw water from a much shallower Glasford aquifer (50 to 60 feet below the surface).
George Roadcap, an Illinois State Water Survey hydrologist, however, said shallow wells can be affected by irrigation units that tap into deep-water sources.
Roadcap said the problem is that "the irrigation wells are drilled to a different standard."
"Often they're not backfilled all the way up," Roadcap said. "It creates a cross connection of shallow sand and deeper sands."
The result is that the irrigation unit — even though it is not designed to do so — saps water from the shallower aquifers.
Roadcap said he isn't surprised by well problems resulting from the conditions experienced during the summer.
"First of all, it's a drought," he said. "There's been a lot of irrigation systems go in, in Champaign County. We looked at water levels in the spring versus the summer. We saw ... in the Rantoul-Fisher area and across northern Champaign County almost 18 feet of draw down."
Cox said nine families have contracted with Urbana attorney Bill Graham to represent them in the matter. She said five new wells were dug serving six families — two families are served by one well — because their wells went dry, all within a couple of miles of one another.
In a letter sent to the Champaign County Public Health Department, Graham said the residents plan to seek relief but also want to ensure that other county residents don't face the same kind of problems in the future that they've experienced.
Graham cited the Illinois Water Use Act of 1983 that requires the county's soil and water conservation district to regulate high-capacity wells that draw more than 100,000 gallons of water per day to determine the effect on neighboring residents.
The law, though, has one flaw, according to Bruce Stikkers, resource conservationist with the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District. He said the General Assembly has not provided the funding to enforce it.
"The problem is the state Legislature gave the water survey that job, and (we) don't have any money to do the investigation," Stikkers said. "Those don't get done. In this case, on the original application it did not have that it was going to be over 100,000 gallons a day, so the health department did not pass the information on to us, and if they did we couldn't have done anything about it."
Shields said he was contacted by only one family, the Coxes, and that was briefly.
"Nobody's contacted us about this, so it is a concern," Shields said. "We're pumping deep, and it's a sealed casing (packed with bentonite clay). It's very tight. They use this (clay) for sealing ponds."
Shields said he was assured by his well driller that the farm's irrigation unit wasn't the cause of the problem.
"When the well guy comes out ... the first thing they do is a test hole, and they see how much water is available," Shields said. "They drill the well 300 feet deep. There's actually a head pressure, so it's almost like a gusher when drilling oil."
Shields said the casing is fitted down to 300 feet, "and on the outside of the casing they pack it with clay (and) all these casings are sealed" to prevent drawing from a water source other than the Mahomet Aquifer.
He said the driller provides a soil bore report for every few feet they drill through.
"If we drilled through an aquifer it's in the report," Shields said. "The well guy told me it is basically impossible for our wells to dry up somebody that's got a 70- to 90-foot well, or some of them were 50-foot wells ... because they don't have anything to do with the aquifer."
Shields said some people whose wells dried up live up to 3 miles from the irrigation fields.
"We had wells that were a quarter to a half a mile from our irrigation unit that were fine," Shields said. "It was the ones that were further away that were complaining."
But Roadcap said the information from that irrigation unit that was submitted to the public health department shows that the unit is packed with clay only down to 70 feet. The rest is surrounded by sand.
He said Glasford aquifers respond in different ways to irrigation units — depending on the amount of surrounding clay deposits that separate upper-level and lower-level aquifers, small channel deposits or other natural deposits "that we don't really see."
He said poorly constructed wells can also be a factor.
Roadcap said the water survey is also investigating allegations that irrigation has caused wells to go dry in Iroquois County.
Shields said a cone effect normally takes place in an irrigation system, and the closest residential wells would be more likely affected.
Shields said that area has sustained drought-like conditions for the past three years. He said this was the second year that the irrigation unit was being used. He asked why the wells hadn't gone dry in 2011 if irrigation was the culprit.
Shields said he wonders why none of the residents are questioning the village of Fisher's water use and its effect on the Glasford aquifer.
"We're not the only ones pulling out of that area," Shields said. "I'm sure their well is larger than ours."
Fisher Mayor Milt Kelly said if the village's water use was a problem, the wells would have gone dry years ago. He said the village typically uses 130,000 gallons of water a day. That number jumps to about 200,000 gallons a day during the summer.
"What's changed over the last 40 years?" Kelly said. "I'll let people draw their own conclusions."
Added Roadcap, "For the village of Fisher, they pump more or less the same amount over a long period of time. It does go up in the summer some. It's not like irrigation where you get a lot of pumpage in a shorter period of time."
Shields said he did not know how much the irrigation unit pumped per day.
Kelly said his greatest concern is, "We all know there's water being used for everything now (for purposes that) didn't used to exist. We've got farmland that's got field tile everywhere you look. I know that there's water that's being taken out of the system that used to go down (to the aquifer). Water supply is a concern for now and for the future that a lot of us are going to be looking at."
Roadcap said shallow wells dried up throughout the state during the summer. But he said he not heard of any drying up that were located away from irrigation units.
"I have heard plenty of cases of shallow-dug wells (those not sunk into an aquifer) that are 40-feet deep," Roadcap said.
Graham said the residents affected by the water disruption want to impress upon the Illinois Geological Survey and the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District that they have an obligation to scrutinize permit requests for high-capacity irrigation wells and to reject commercial irrigation permits when their usage may reasonably be anticipated to interfere with the drinking water well production of other property owners.
Graham said the Shields irrigation unit, which was installed last year but which he claimed was not used until this year, has a pumping capacity of 1,250 gallons a minute and affected other area wells due to a "cone of depression" around the irrigation well site and that it created a hydraulic pressure differential, which "de-watered the upper aquifer (Glasford), draining it into the lower aquifer (Mahomet)."
Shields, however, said he doesn't believe the irrigation unit pumps that much water per minute. He also said the aquifer "has head pressure on it that pulls up. It doesn't draw down."
Graham said he expects a lawsuit to be filed "depending on negotiations with the well owners."
"If there's no remedy by next spring I would think some (action) would need to be taken," he said.
Graham said he wants every area resident who experienced well problems to step forward.
"We're still trying to get out to folks that are affected," Graham said. "We'd like to kind of have a unified voice and bring it to the farm owner, and if that doesn't work (pursue litigation)."