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Saturday, July 20, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Move to blow cover of artesian well

Seattle Times Snohomish County reporter

LYNNWOOD — For Hiroko Kunimitsu, the proof is in her tea.

"Japanese tea, color is green," said the Mukilteo woman, a recent immigrant, while her husband filled plastic bottles with clear water flowing from a simple metal pipe. "We pour this water, this color more vivid."

For nearly 50 years, the artesian well partly hidden in a wooded spot off 164th Street Southwest just north of Lynnwood has attracted people from throughout the region. Some simply love its soft taste, while others detest additives and are willing to travel great distances to collect free, pure water that isn't tainted with chlorine or fluoride.

Now fans are cringing.

Early next month the Alderwood Water District plans to seal off the well outlet and reroute the artesian waters to a new kiosk about 100 feet away, in plain sight of busy 164th Street. A new parking lot is already paved; pipes are installed.

Everything's ready — except the unhappy customers.

"It kind of makes it more commercialized," complained Aimee Morehart, 20, who pulled up in a red Pontiac Sunbird to perform her daily ritual. She works at Nordstrom at nearby Alderwood Mall and uses her afternoon break to fill a small Crystal Geyser bottle with fresh artesian water.

"It's been hidden over there for so long, it's our little secret water deal," said Morehart, whose uncle showed her the well when she was 8.

Health and environmental rules forced the move, said Greg Williamson, project engineer for the water district. The state Department of Health objected to the presence of people and vehicles directly above the well, and the gravel parking lot lies just 15 feet east of Swamp Creek.

Longtime well visitors tell about people they've met at the well — such as the University of Washington professor who used the water in his lab experiments or the Portland man who makes regular trips to fill 20-gallon water tanks in the back of his truck.

The mix of faces has changed in recent years. Asian, Hispanic, Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants are making up an ever-growing percentage of well patrons, as word spreads through their communities.

Petre Olanu, who drank well water in his native Romania, learned of the artesian well through his church. His wife, Celest Olanu, is from Guatemala City, where bottled water was delivered to her home twice a week because the tap water was so bad.

"It does taste good — kind of like ice melted," said their 11-year-old daughter, Ivanca, after her first sample.

Her 14-year-old brother, Ed, tipped a Taco Bell cup beneath the water flow, then replaced its plastic top and sipped through a straw. He approved.

"Down in L.A., the water had a weird, warm taste to it. This doesn't have a taste, and it's cold," he said.

In decades past, people carefully protected the location of the 400-foot-deep well, dug in the 1950s by the Alderwood Water District. The water's aficionados abhor publicity and lament the growing number of vehicles jamming the small parking lot.

"Sometimes you have to fight to get your water, it's so crowded," said Susan Danese, who discovered the well 21 years ago. "I've lived as far away as Bellevue and still come here at least once a week. Out of the (tap), there's a metally taste. Once you drink this, you can't drink any other water."

The Alderwood Water District hasn't used well water to serve its South Snohomish County customers since 1961, when it contracted with Everett for piped water originating in the Cascades. It plugged its other nine wells but left the artesian well intact, decreeing its waters free for the taking.

Natural underground pressure forces the aquifer's water to the surface, where it spills out at the rate of 10 gallons per minute. A pipe inserted into the deep well is punctured with small holes, allowing the water to enter and gush upward.

"There's something about it that's sparkling," said local resident Maureen Copenhaver, whose two children came along recently to help fill the family's three 5-gallon jugs. "There are so many people who rely on this and look forward to coming here. It's such a treat."

The water district tests the well monthly for bacteria and runs more complex tests yearly. The well has never failed a test, project engineer Williamson said.

Opus Northwest, which is building a business park nearby, paid the $100,000 project cost as part of a $1.2 million mitigation package. Wetlands prevented the company from developing about half of its 91-acre property, and Opus agreed to restore one large former wetland and build the well project in exchange for filling some wet areas.

Mike Ruhl, an Opus real-estate director, is amused by the well's popularity. He's from Tumwater, home of Olympia Beer, touted as being made with artesian water. The brewery coined the slogan "It's the Water" in 1901.

"It's the same water we had in Tumwater. It just cracks me up that people flock to it," Ruhl said. "I should swing by and see what the rave is about."

Diane Brooks: 206-464-2567 or dbrooks@seattletimes.com.

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