Sunday, December 12, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Little Utah Town Hits A Gusher: Pure Water From The Ice Ages


OAKLEY, Utah - The first clue came when the lawn sprinklers lost their oomph. Then faucets around town slowed to a drip. When people climbed into showers to bathe, no water came out. And this on a weekend when 20,000 guests were on the way.

Fortunately, the crisis was fleeting. After a couple days spent shutting down offending hoses, Oakley's overtaxed Cottonwood Well was spewing water once again. But that near-miss in the Kamas Valley two summers ago - days before the annual July 4 rodeo, the community's biggest event - warned of dry times ahead.

For Oakley had grown. The sign at the edge of town, "Hurry Back To Oakley, population 525," was outdated by hundreds of souls. Subdivisions had sprouted and filled with families demanding clean, fresh water - a valuable commodity, especially in this patch of the forever arid American West.

Though no one knew it then, an ideal solution was at hand - one that could quench Oakley's thirst and keep it on tomorrow's maps.

Silently, in the dark, it had waited for nearly 200 centuries, since ice shrouded the planet. To find it, they would have to go into the mouth of Seymour Canyon above town, then down, down, down into the Earth. They would have to drill past silt and muck, down 1,840 feet through shale and sandstone, deep into limestone hidden since before humans walked the planet.

In a tiny underground pocket called the Humbug Well, cool and still and pure and protected, sat Oakley's aquatic salvation.

In Utah, the second-driest U.S. state, the largest body of water is salted and undrinkable. Half the available water is consumed by humans; the other half either sits unused in wetlands or evaporates. Shortages are a constant fear. Streams are always low and claims high, especially in rapidly growing Summit County, where most aquifers are connected and supply is limited.

So when Oakley started running dry that July day, it was serious business. And Mayor Doug Evans knew it warranted a serious response.

Mine was flooded in 1920s

After examining U.S. Geological Survey maps from 1990, the town and its contractor, Weston Groundwater Engineering, settled on what was known as the Humbug Well. They knew a silver-ore mining project down the road in Park City had been abandoned in the 1920s when a tunnel filled up with water. Bill Loughlin, the project's hydrogeologist, surmised it came from an untapped aquifer.

"The miners were trying to get rid of it. We were looking for it," the mayor says.

A test drill on city property deep in U.S. Forest Service territory in Seymour Canyon verified fluid 1,000 feet under. But they decided to gamble and go deeper, hoping to find water kept pure by a protective layer of clay.

Then, one afternoon in September 1998, just as they were about to give up, Loughlin called Evans. "We hit water, baby!" the hydrogeologist exulted. From deep within a layer of Mississippian limestone, a sort of geological cul-de-sac, water was gushing into the Utah sky at 175 gallons a minute - water in such abundance that it could nourish Oakley's crops and cows and citizens for at least two decades, probably far longer. Water that could ensure Oakley's future.

But that wasn't all. Another surprise awaited: The water in Humbug Well is 18,000 years old, give or take a few thousand - no small matter in an age when 900 brands of bottled water do $4 billion in business in America alone. And, unlike most other water sources, Oakley's is virtually free of contamination from humanity's nuclear age.

City officials didn't realize it was special at first. Sure, it was crisp and clean, no caffeine. But Ice Age water?

They sent it in for testing, which showed only minute traces of dissolved minerals - calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate and sodium. That meant it was quite pure. They tested for arsenic, lead and heavy metals; none turned up. This was special water indeed.

Finally, the kicker: the water showed only minute traces of tritium, a byproduct of nuclear energy, meaning it had been protected since before 1953.

So they shipped it to GeoChron, a Cambridge, Mass., company that does carbon-14 testing, the method used to date Egyptian mummies and the Shroud of Turin. The results stunned everyone.

"We're all scientists; we've been doing this for a lot of years," Loughlin says. "But we were like a bunch of little kids with this. It was like finding a fossil in your backyard."

Or a gold mine. No one knows how much is down there, but they know it's a lot.

Though there are never guarantees with groundwater, especially at such depths, the most advanced geological technology available, peer reviewed and analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey, shows the aquifer that contains the water is huge.

The water's ancient origins have made talk of bottling and marketing inevitable - especially if the town wins the legal right to declare Humbug Well a new water source. Hucksters have begun to call, some kooks, some legit.

"A good copywriter and a great artist and a bottler with a lot of resources might be able to make a go of this," says Arthur von Wiesenberger, a consultant to the bottled-water industry. "But it's one thing to have good-tasting tap water; it's another to have the savvy and marketing to get into the business."

Aged scotch and aged water

Legal obstacles restrict the city's free-enterprise activities, and enlisting private help cedes local control. It's fine to promote the town and bring money in, but the municipal supply has to come first. And besides, does Oakley really want to be Watertown, USA?

A soda cracker first, to cleanse the palate.

Then some possibilities. Stir up a glass of Pleistocene punch. Pop it into the freezer for an Ice Age ice cube. Or maybe the guy from the technical journal has the best idea: "I always figured 10,000-year-old water would go with 10-year-old scotch," says Warren Wood, editor-in-chief of Ground Water.

The mayor liked it so much that he kept a Mason jar up by the well and would enjoy a drink every time he stopped by. But since the well was capped for the winter, where to procure a mouthful? City Hall?

"There's some in the refrigerator downstairs, but it's been sitting for a while," Loughlin offered. Then he realized what he'd just said: "I guess that doesn't matter."

The fridge, unfortunately, was empty. Finally, Loughlin mailed off a sample in a small vial marked "Oakley Humbug Well." Evans called with some advice a couple weeks later: "Make sure it's well chilled."

Unscrew the vial, then. Inhale the aroma of 18,000 years. Bring it to your lips and gulp. Swish it around a bit, contemplating mastodons and giant sloths and neanderthals. Then swallow - and assess.

Tastes like . . . water. A little flat, a touch sweet.

In other words, to most palates, like absolutely nothing. Not bad for an elixir that survived the messy history of the human race unpolluted, untouched, unchanged.

Come spring, the water, 650 gallons of it a minute, will be pumped into Oakley's regular municipal system. It will require little treatment; not being mountain groundwater, it is free of pesticides and herbicides and microbeasties with nasty names like giardia and cryptosporidium.

It will flow from Oakley faucets, moisten Oakley lawns, irrigate Oakley crops.

Will they serve it up on ice at the Oakley rodeo? Probably. Will they shower with it and drink it in their coffee? Definitely. Will they market it to the world and join the ranks of Evian, Perrier, Poland Spring? Perhaps.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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