Saga of Drilling a Well in Mexico: A Oaxaca Case Study
Part I: Decision-Making Process, To
Completion of Digging
meters of water in a twelve meter well cavity
within the context of the mañana lifestyle of
Southern Mexico, three years to dig a well in Oaxaca does
seem extreme, and to most, incomprehensible. Chalk it up to
electing to have it dug by hand, changes in personnel, the
odd fit of frustration, and seasonal differences in rainfall
and water table dictating timing.
Water in Oaxaca as a Motivator for a Well Digging Project
Americans and Canadians will eventually come to consider water
as a resource of finite supply. In Southern Mexico we have
already come to this realization. Its been predicted
that the scarcity of water in Oaxaca will worsen over time,
as a result of climate change and other factors. The past
fifteen years have borne witness.
The dry season has become longer and dryer, with the rainy
season characterized by a corresponding reduction in duration
and amount of precipitation. To receive water, Oaxacans rely
on a municipal water delivery system, supplemented by water
trucks (known as pipas). Supply via the former has
been met with a reduction in quantity, quality, and frequency
of delivery. The implication is that as the dry season approaches
one cannot rely on the delivery of reasonably clean water
when its needed. The situation is worse for residents
without cisterns, who must fill small tanks (known as tinacos)
of roughly 1,100 to 2,500 liters, or makeshift receptacles
such as old stationary propane tanks. The fortunate among
us have cisterns with a capacity of anywhere from 5,000 to
25,000 liters. Commercial enterprise cannot rely on the municipal
system for their needs, and must order pipas on a regular
Toward the end of the dry season when water does come into
our cisterns and tinacos, sometimes its so dirty
that residents elect to shut off the valve by the street in
favor of purchasing water from pipas.
Pipas come in sizes ranging from about 1,100 to 20,000
liters. During the dry season its sometimes difficult
to get a pipa to the house, especially for residences
in the countryside or up steep hills. And of course the cost
of a pipa is greater at this time of year. One is paying
for the driver, truck and fuel, as much as for the water itself.
Accordingly, those with small cisterns or only a tinaco
end up paying up to threefold more per liter, than those with
larger capacity tanks.
In the face of this progressively worsening water problem,
many residents who think they may be above a water table that
is not prohibitively low, are electing to investigate the
feasibility of digging or drilling a well, if not for the
present, then as a precaution and investment for the future.
Drinking water is distinct from municipal and pipa
water. Tap water is used only for washrooms, kitchen sinks,
doing laundry, and lawns and gardens. Water for drinking and
often cooking is purchased at the store or from water trucks
selling five gallon (19 liter) jugs.
The Decision to Dig a Well in Colonia Loma Linda, Oaxaca
Moving to Southern Mexico presents a learning curve
in fact several challenges. Even more so when it comes to
an urban middle class Canadian couple trying to appreciate
the minutiae involved in deciding upon and then proceeding
with a well digging project:
Is there water on the property, and if so precisely
where and how far down?
How do we find out for sure, and who should we trust?
How much should it cost to dig a well?
Whats the difference between digging and drilling
in terms of cost and speed, and advisability of one method
over the other?
How to go about finding a competent and trustworthy
well digger or driller?
How much time should the project take, to reach each
What diameter should the well be?
Are there any guarantees regarding whether or not water
will in fact be reached, how far down, and therefore corresponding
Will we need concrete rings (known as anillos)
placed down inside the well?
What volume of water should be expected?
What about pumps, filters and tubing to lift the water
and move it into a cistern?
Should there be a separate cistern to keep the well
water segregated from the street water?
How much should the analysis of the quality of the
water from the well impact a decision regarding readying the
water for drinking, with chemical cleansers and the like?
In retrospect its easy enough to enumerate the foregoing
list, which is far from exhaustive. But its compilation was
a work in progress, with issues and decisions to be made arising
periodically over the course of three years. There is no course
for Oaxacans wanting a well.
Our home in Colonia Loma Linda is at the top of a hill facing
the street, Calle Sierra Nevada. The lot extends to the bottom
of the hill, where theres a predominantly unpaved dirt
road which during the rainy season appears more of a stream.
There are tell-tale signs of moisture near the bottom of our
hill: trees remain green year round, a bit of river reed (carriso)
grows near the bottom of our land; a neighbor has healthy
banana trees; and he and another neighbor have wells. Our
own fruit trees, further up our hill, have traditionally struggled,
I assume in part because of the distance to the water table,
and of course because of the stone substratum.
Below perhaps a foot of hard earth, our land is pure rock.
We knew this when we bought it, and were able to confirm it
as we watched workers digging three retaining walls for the
house, by hand, excavating several feet down.
I estimated, based on a conversation with one of the lower
neighbors, that if we began digging about _ of the way down
the hill, we would have to dig a total of about 13 meters
in order to reach a sufficient supply of water. The neighbor
recommended a diviner / digger. He came by, we told him approximately
where we would want to dig, and then he pegged the exact spot
using his two lengths of reinforced steel as divining rods.
And what if he was wrong? He was pretty old, which did instill
a modicum of confidence.
At the time the diviner / well diggers price seemed
high, at 3,500 pesos per meter. Wed never checked around
and didnt have any friends with well-digging experience
to guide us. We then spoke to Rogelio, a bricklayer whom wed
known for a few years. He advised us that he knew someone
who knew how to dig a well, and that with him (Rogelio) at
the helm, we could work out a weekly rate for a small team.
We trusted Rogelio, so asked him to coordinate the digging,
which he did.
We actually had a choice of having the well dug by hand, or
by a company with well-digging machinery. An architect friend
advised to go with the former, indicating that a commercial
outfit would first seek municipal permission for the digging,
which may or may not be forthcoming, and in any event would
entail delays; so the best would be to go with a more informal
arrangement. And after all, thats what our neighbors
had done dug their wells by hand, quietly, without
fanfare and no problems with the municipality.
Digging a well by hand, through rock, entails using chisels
and mallets, and no more. Some workers use a ladder to descend,
while others simply shimmy up and down with the aid of a thick
Manufacturers of concrete forms do a brisk business selling
anillos for wells. Personnel at one such company helped me
to determine that the rings in our case should be a diameter
which would, when inserted into the well cavity, result in
an opening of one meter (de la luz of light).
At that time there was never any question of whether or not
rings would be needed. I assumed they were necessary, because
people always talked about anillos, and while traversing
the central valleys of Oaxaca I would see anillos at
the top of wells, and lying on the ground alongside well-digging
projects. I never considered the quality of ground into which
the wells had been dug. Some two years later, after having
purchased ten rings, I learned that anillos are most
often used when the earth is soft, in order to maintain the
required well diameter without risk of collapse. I also learned
that their use can actually impede water seepage into the
Let the Well Digging Begin in Loma Linda, Oaxaca
Shortly after we had moved to Oaxaca, I went to a rare contents
sale with a friend, and amongst other things purchased a job
lot of nails, chisels, hammers and mallets, figuring that
in the course of the balance of my lifetime, some of it would
be useful. I had already learned to be much handier around
the house than I had been the previous 53 years. Now I had
more of the supplies that I used to come across in my fathers
Rogelio, in consultation with the well digger, comprised a
list of materials for me to acquire: ropes, a longer ladder,
and buckets. I already had the mallets, and it was just a
matter of finding an ironworker (herrero) with the
machinery necessary to forge points and flat surfaces on the
chisels. I had wrongly assumed that every herrero possessed
all such equipment.
Digging began in January, 2008. I instructed:
Start digging here, where those couple of rocks are
lying on the ground; not over there, not over there, it has
to be right here, because thats what the diviner said.
Ensure that the diameter all the way down is at least ten
centimeters wider than the outside diameter of those rings
over there. We have to be able to lower them down.
The work week on construction sites for Monday through Friday
is traditionally 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with an hour for lunch and
usually a couple of impromptu short breaks. Payday is every
Saturday at 1 2 p.m., when workers leave for the weekend.
Work proceeded reasonably well for a number of weeks, without
incident, although I had already begun to regret the weekly
pay arrangement rather than a fixed amount per meter. It seems
as though construction workers will make what they expect
they should make, regardless of the arrangement. The difference
is that if you pay by the project, or in this case by the
meter, you know as best possible what your cost will be. If
its by the week, youre at the mercy of your trabjadores
and their work ethic.
Mid-digging we decided to leave Oaxaca for a few days, not
anticipating being back until late Saturday or Sunday. Friends
were minding the house for us. We gave them the weekly pay
for the crew, and asked them to pay the money to the boss
(in our mind, clearly Rogelio) on Saturday afternoon. Our
friend gave the money to the wrong person the well
digger, instead of Rogelio who would traditionally take all
the money and pay himself and the two workers. The well digger
ran away with the money for all three. Upon our return from
our brief vacation we learned of what had happened, and while
Rogelio knew the well digger and in fact had coordinated with
him to work on our job, the scoundrel was nowhere to be found,
and certainly not at his home.
Its not totally uncommon for this kind of thing to happen,
right down to the culprit failing to return home, and hiding
out elsewhere, often in his village in another part of the
We felt bad for Rogelio, and he felt bad for himself, recognizing
that the obligation was his to track down the thief, since
he had been working for us based on Rogelios assurance
of his honesty. We suspended work, and never did hear from
Rogelio about the outcome, although he has returned to our
home to do more traditional bricklayer jobs.
To Every Time, There is a Season: A Season to Dig, A Season
In order to get a true reading of the volume of water one
can expect to extract from a well, at the worst of times,
the digging should proceed and certainly conclude as close
to the end of the dry season as possible. Thats when
the water table is the lowest. Digging during the rainy season
is more difficult (though the ground is softer), and certainly
concluding the digging during or after the rainy season does
not provide an accurate measure of the water one can expect
to be able to obtain from the well when times are tough
very dry. A friend finished digging a well a couple of years
earlier, only to learn that he had not completed the work
late enough in the dry season. He then had to dig a further
three meters. Even after this additional work, he learned
that there was not sufficient water for the needs of his family
and workshop, even after having dug deeper.
Its not uncommon for Oaxacans to have to dig down deeper
every so often, as changes to the water table occur, for I
would imagine a couple of main reasons; more wells having
been dug close by, and climactic change. Another friend initially
had a nine meter well, and now its 13 meters.
We had become both jaded, and admittedly a bit lax about the
whole thing, nevertheless feeling a greater sense of urgency
as the months passed. Media reports and advisories from ADOSAPACO,
the water commission, contributed to our increasing anxiety.
We lamented our unfortunate experience to a neighbor. Amador
had done odd jobs around the house for us, such as watering
plants while we were away, weeding our garden and planting
corn, beans and squash. He was trustworthy, to the point where
we had called upon his wife and daughter to baby sit for guests
in the house with young children.
Amador was a teacher. However, given teachers salaries,
he was always open to working on projects which would enable
him to make extra cash. Amador agreed to continue digging
the well, on his own, for 3,000 pesos per meter. Sometimes
one of his sons would accompany him. He had no experience,
except that he knew how to descend and ascend a ladder, and
use a hammer and chisel. His son would lift the broken stone
in the bucket using the pulley, and if he wasnt available,
Amador would do it all himself.
The 2009 rainy season was about to begin. Amador exclaimed
at the conclusion of a weekend day that he felt humidity at
one side of the well, now at about six meters. There had always
been concerns: what if there isnt water down there,
or what if we have to go twenty meters. Amador assured us
that what he felt wasnt simply a consequence of the
commencement of the rains. At the same time he asked us for
more money, stating that it was becoming more difficult, and
now dangerous, being down so deep, and with rain loosening
the rock. I told him that I wasnt prepared to pay more
now, but when the project was finished I would bump up the
pay retroactively from that point in time (number of meters),
to 3,500 pesos.
We became more confident in Amadors assessment that
indeed there would be water, when one day he asked us to buy
a pump, tubing and other accessories to get the water out
of the well so as to enable him to continue digging. I ran
out and bought everything Amador had requested, late that
Saturday afternoon when the building material supply stores
were getting ready to close. So what if it cost another 4,000
pesos in equipment; we were in business; we had water, in
our minds a gusher. And if the pump was only provisional in
that eventually we would need a higher horsepower more efficient
submersible apparatus, then so be it. And when Amador told
us that the chisel points had been broken, of course wed
go back to the herrero, with pleasure, and have them
By chance, about this time, either fortunately or unfortunately
we were having some major electrical work done around the
house. In Mexico, youre allowed to have more than one
hydro meter for a single family home, to reduce your electricity
costs. Our builder neglected to tell us this, and more importantly
that for a large home, with only one meter, the cost would
be significant because one pays a premium for electricity
after a certain level of consumption. Our electrician, Maestro
Ricardo was changing the wiring so as to accommodate five
meters instead of only one. Its akin to income splitting
with ones spouse or child to reduce the top marginal
tax rate, but perfectly legal.
Maestro Ricardo was working away at dividing our electrical
current into different circuits, when I asked him about the
advisability of having a meter dedicated to the well pump
and a couple of other outlets on our party terrace near the
bottom of the hill. He thought it was a wise idea. He suggested
a 220 volt outlet rather than 110, and proceeded to do the
wiring for our well pump.
Amador worked into the beginning of the rainy season, until
he stated he could no longer continue, but would return in
three or four months to finish the job. We were at about eight
meters, thrilled, and anxious to finish. Our thoughts began
to turn to matters such as flow rate and ultimate depth we
should go, water analysis, particulars of the pump we would
have to install on a permanent basis, and electical current
for it, and several other issues which had been pointed out
to us over the past couple of years.
Fermín Finishes Digging the Well in Loma Linda,
Amador never returned, even though he continues to be our
neighbor. However a friend who had begun digging his own well
recommended someone else for us, Fermín. He told me
he would not need Fermín to finish his well until about
May, 2010, and that we could use him until then, the driest
part of the dry season. That served us just fine. We met with
Fermín and his son in early 2010, agreed to 3,500 pesos
per meter, and a tentative start date. Fermín was the
first actual pozero,or well digger, that we had used.
He had dedicated himself to digging wells by hand for the
past 17 years, and was teaching his son the trade.
Youll have to get these chisels sharpened again.
Theyre no good to me like they are. And dont worry
about the ladder. We dont need it. I do need some thicker
rope, though, and we might need more tubing if youll
want to use the water we pump out to water all your fruit
I went out and made all the purchases, and then some. I purchased
Y connectors, shut-off valves, and everything
else I thought I might need to get the water to both the fruit
trees, and hopefully higher up to our flower boxes.
Fermín confirmed that given the quality of the rock
he was excavating, we would not need to use the anillos.
The stone provided sufficient structural integrity without
having to be shored up with concrete. He agreed that using
anillos could actually impede water seepage into the
well, unless they had large holes in them, and that it just
wouldnt be worth the additional expense and effort to
adapt and then use them.
Fermín lived up to billing, in short order digging
down to over 11 meters. It took over an hour every morning
to pump out the water from the night before. Then Fermín
disappeared. He just didnt show up one Monday morning,
and didnt answer his cellular for a few days. Eventually
he did respond, and advised that hed return in two weeks.
Five weeks later he was back, advising that wed probably
have to go another three meters down.
After three or four days of digging, Fermín told me
that he would not be returning. He said that it was now taking
him about two hours in the morning to pump out the water before
he could begin digging, and that there was about five meters
of water to be removed. To Fermín that signified that
the well would produce sufficient water for our requirements
and that there was no need to dig further. To me that meant
we had ourselves an honest pozero who could have continued
(he didnt have another job pending, since my friend
had altered his plans regarding using Fermín in the
foreseeable future), but let us know it wasnt necessary
for him to continue. As is often the custom with trades in
Oaxaca, a brief discussion ensured about how much
we owed him (measuring his progress by lowering a stone attached
to a rope to the bottom of the well, and then using a tape
measure), followed by the friendly departure of Fermín
Looking Ahead to Part II of Digging a Well in Oaxaca
In my next and final installment, I deal with issues such
as flow rate, biological analysis, decorative brickwork and
custom iron cover, ongoing issues relating to structural integrity,
and matters such as pumps and piping, the additional cistern,
and whatever else it takes to conclude such an endeavor.
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