District Ranger Perry Edwards says that changes in the flow rate at the artesian well over the years have generated theories that the City of Sitka was either 1) intentionally limiting the water flow, or 2) treating it with fluoride and chlorine. Neither is true. Edwards says the well is untreated, and is tested monthly for coliforms, and annually for heavy metals. If there were ever a safety concern, he says, “We would shut down the well immediately.” (USFS photo)

The Sitka Ranger District hopes to have the Starrigavan artesian well flowing freely again in the near future.

If work to unclog the popular water source isn’t successful, the district will consider sinking a new well.

 When it was first opened in 1993, the artesian well at the Starrigavan campground flowed at 60 gallons per minute.

60 gallons a minute. That was enough for an entrepreneur to deliver 5-gallon carboys to local businesses and cafes for their water coolers.

But that was 28 years ago, and you know, wells of a certain age begin to experience problems.

“So the idea — and I’m kind of rangering up some words here — is to basically Roto-Root down through there and clean off all the pipe,” said Perry Edwards, Sitka District Ranger. 

“And also have a giant shop-vac to suck that stuff out of there, versus if you blow it down in there, you’re just going to pull it right back in because it’s under pressure. Then see how that works.”

The artesian well is a project of the US Forest Service — there is no city involvement in the well at all. So rumors that the city is somehow behind the ever-decreasing amount of water coming from the well are untrue. The brief shutdown back in April allowed a contractor to come in with a specialized camera to examine the well’s plumbing, like an endoscopy.

Edwards says the reduced flow rate is just nature at work.

“And what we found was that there was just a lot of natural bacteria and inorganic matter was accumulating again on the inside of the pipe,” said Edwards

The well was last reamed out six years ago in 2015, and that boosted flow to around eight gallons per minute, but it’s since tapered off to one-third of a gallon per minute. Like then, this latest endoscopy showed no damage to the functional part of the well — the casing, pipe, or screen.

On the upside, contrary to yet another popular rumor, the artesian well has not run dry — far from it. Starrigavan is an enormous watershed with a complicated hydraulic structure that naturally pressurizes the well. No pumping is necessary. Like a familiar body part, the artesian well just needs an outlet.

“Because this is a bladder of water, at a high tide there’s more pressure on that, so you actually get more flow going out of that at a high tide than you do at a low tide,” Edwards said.

Fortunately, the district has Great American Outdoors Act funding to start small, and then go big if necessary. How big? Edwards says that if they can’t get a satisfactory flow at this location, they’ll move the wellhead.

“We may have to look a lot harder at ‘Do we need to drill another place and put new casing down and start all over again maybe 50 feet away from that location?’ and see if that helps it,” he said. 

Edwards says many people will welcome the return of the artesian well at higher volumes — himself included. The well supplies water to the entire Forest Service campground, and to the campground host cabin. And while he can’t disclose the cost of the well upgrade, as it’s currently out to bid, Edwards knows well users are paying a high price in personal time and patience at the current flow rate of one-third of a gallon per minute.

“Yes, that is a little bit of a frustration if you’re out there with a five-gallon jug trying to fill it,” he said.

Edwards expects the clean-out of the Starrigavan artesian well to take place later this summer. Installing a new wellhead, if needed, would be a project for this fall or winter.

Disclosure: Sitka District Ranger Perry Edwards serves on the board of the Raven Radio Foundation.