LYNNWOOD — Tires crunch gravel as Dallas Watson pulls into a small parking lot off 164th Street SW and backs his white cargo van toward the artesian well.
He opens the rear doors and starts hauling out empty 5-gallon water jugs. His golden retriever, Cosmo, stays put in the passenger seat, sticking its snout toward the window cracked open for dog comfort.
Watson, who drove 40 minutes from West Seattle, got lucky on this trek to the public well near the I-5 exit. There is only one other person at 9:30 on a Monday morning at the watering hole that draws traffic 24/7.
“I’ve waited a half hour,” said Watson, who comes regularly for untreated water.
The well has two spigots, one on each side, so two people can fill up at a time. Water runs from the faucet nonstop at a garden-hose type stream. It takes a few minutes to finish a jumbo jug. Watson brought nine.
By the time Watson has two jugs filled, there are five cars — make that, six … then seven, eight — in the gravel lot with room for a dozen vehicles but no space to turn around, making it like a game of bumper cars.
Men, women and children armed with bottles and coolers form an orderly line that keeps growing. Wait-your-turn etiquette prevails, whether you’re here for one gallon or 45, like Watson.
The water is for workers at his south Seattle flooring business and family members at home.
“Cosmo only drinks this water,” he said.
People have been coming to this well for decades. Watson is a relative newbie, inspired by the “raw water” movement that believes untreated water is healthy and even a healing tonic.
The Alderwood Water & Wastewater District, which owns this well, treats customer tap water with chlorine to kill parasites, bacteria and viruses and to protect the water from germs when it is piped to homes and businesses. Fluoride is added to help prevent tooth decay.
Watson became a convert of untreated water after reading books about it. He claims the benefits are real.
“I have more energy,” he said. “This water coming right out of the earth has never touched anything artificial and I’m putting it right into glass jugs. The water is still living. It’s moving. It’s active.”
Maybe so. Mostly, though, it just looks like any water.
Colorless. And wet.
The well at 2331 164th St. SW is on a busy stretch midway between Ash Way and Manor Way.
There’s no sign in front and nothing inviting about it. Just a gravel lot framed in the back with a fence and woods, an open primitive shelter of sorts. And potholes.
Motorists stream along the thoroughfare and wonder what’s going on there. The cult of water worshippers hope the passersby just keep wondering.
“Don’t put this in the paper,” scolded a woman who didn’t want the word out about her favorite water source.
The well has received sporadic media coverage over the years, but not everybody watches TV or reads The Daily Herald — and even if they do, well, water isn’t exactly the sexiest topic in terms of attracting viewers or readers.
Officially known as Well No. 5, it is the last well flowing in the Alderwood district.
The well, drilled in 1956, was one of 10 that supplied consumers of the public utility company. The other nine wells were disconnected in 1961 to meet the water demands of the growing population. The 60-square-mile district includes Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, Brier and nearby unincorporated areas of south Snohomish County; and parts of Edmonds, Bothell, Mill Creek and Mukilteo. The district purchases its tap water from the city of Everett, which gets it from the Spada Lake Reservoir.
There are no plans to shut the well down, said Darren DeMontes, a field operations manager at the utility.
“Nobody wants to take the heat on that. Our phones would blow up.”
Well No. 5 is a perk for the public. For the district, not so much.
“To be honest, it’s a pain,” DeMontes said.
The people who pay for water for their faucets, gardens, showers and toilets foot the bill for the upkeep of the well for water that’s “free to everybody and anybody.”
Lab tests on the water run about $500 a year, a drop in the bucket of total expenses.
The annual tab is about $25,000 a year.
“Every morning we have our buildings and grounds crew pick up garbage, there are labor hours for that,” DeMontes said.
Another cost is buying and spreading gravel in the parking lot that feels the brunt of constant use by cars that leave laden with poundage of water. A 1-gallon jug of water weighs about 8.34 pounds.
“There’s a Buddhist temple that fills up lots of jugs of water,” DeMontes said. (If it’s busy, the monks fill a few bottles, then go to the back of the line before filling more.)
Buddhists and beer brewers. College students and seniors. Families and fitness freaks. A diverse lineup of humanity in hijabs, saris, cargo shorts and Spandex.
Hundreds fill up daily, thousands monthly, but not him.
“I don’t really care for it. It tastes like dirt,” DeMontes said. “The minerals and everything, I could probably get used to it. I prefer city water.”
No fountain of youth
The water at Well No. 5 is as old as the dirt in it.
“The water coming out of the ground today might have seeped into the ground from rain hundreds and hundreds of years ago, maybe even thousands,” said Rob Turner, who teaches classes on water at University of Washington Bothell.
“It is less vulnerable to contamination from above, from what people do on the landscape.” Think fertilizers, pesticides, underground fuel storage tanks and other modern-day pollutants threatening our water.
The well taps into the aquifer at 200 feet, and water goes down another 200 feet.
How does it get up?
“The water is under enough pressure so there is no pump required for the water to come from the well and up to the surface,” Turner said.
That pressurized form of delivery is what makes it an artesian well, namesake of the former French province of Artois, where wells were drilled by Carthusian monks a thousand years ago.
“For people who don’t want any of that messing or monkeying around with their water, groundwater is really the only viable source of drinking water that you can get without any treatment,” Turner said.
The well water is laced with minerals from moving through sediment, he said. “I would not say this artesian well is getting them nutritional supplements they can’t get in other ways, but if people like it, more power to them, particularly because it’s free.”
He talks about the 164th Street well in his classes and has driven by it multiple times, but never stopped for a sip.
“I drink the tap water that is provided,” Turner said. “I think it’s fine.”
The raw truth
Raw water comes with different rules than processed water.
DeMontes said people should use “common sense” guidelines with untreated water.
Store water in a cold, dark place. Sunlight can cause bacteria to grow.
“If it starts to turn color, don’t drink it,” he said.
Disinfect water bottles with bleach after each use. Rinse out and let dry before reuse.
The Environmental Protection Agency dictates standards to ensure tap water is safe to drink. The Alderwood artesian well follows those standards.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates untreated water that is bottled and sold to consumers.
When drinking untreated water, it is important to know where the water comes from. Most things that can make you sick are invisible to the naked eye.
The raw water trend has brought big claims and big prices.
“Good for hair, skin and nails,” boasts the website for Live Spring Water, based in central Oregon. “Good for joints and detoxing.”
Live Spring Water sells a 2.5 gallon jug for $16.
Has Alderwood ever thought about selling the water?
“We’ve had people that approached us and said, ‘We will bottle it for you,’ ” said Mike Pivec, Alderwood district spokesman.
The offers were declined.
“The frequency it flows isn’t very fast and would be hard to get it in huge quantities for commercial purposes,” he said. “But it seems to be fine for people willing to wait a little bit to fill up their 5 gallons.”
The well is self-policed. An unspoken courtesy governs. People step up when it’s their turn, like at the bank. But there isn’t anyone saying “Next.” And there’s no express lane. Those with two Nalgene bottles take their place behind those with wagons with 10-gallon jugs, who often let them go ahead.
Pivec isn’t aware of fights or spats over waiting. Trash left behind is the district’s biggest issue, and it could be that the bins are also being used by people seeking free garbage pickup, not free water. Most well patrons come loaded down with jugs, not bags of fast food and other matter filling the bins.
With demand increasing for untreated water, the utility recently tried to exert a bit of authority.
“We put up a sign there that said, ‘Please limit yourself to 20 gallons and go to the back of the line if people are waiting,’ ” Pivec said. “We went with 20 to see what people think.”
Here’s what they thought: The people filling up jugs took down the signs.
At the well, Matt Williams stands out. He has the smallest container of anyone. It’s a jar that holds 3.38 ounces.
If the well is busy, people let him in front for a sample.
The utility company worker comes once a month to collect a water sample to test for bacteria, carefully recording the time and bottle number before placing it in a cooler for testing at a Bellingham lab.
About 150 tap water sites also are tested monthly at meter boxes at homes and businesses.
The well water is tested yearly for nitrates and any inorganic contaminant that is readable.
The results are posted on the district’s web site.
“We have never failed a water quality test,” Pivec said.
It is award-winning agua.
The artesian water placed second in the 2017 American Water Works Association’s Pacific Northwest competition that also included Oregon and Idaho, and took first for Northwest Washington. The well also beat the district’s tap water in a blind test based on odor, flavor and after-taste.
“We don’t put that on our site because that would prompt more people to go get it,” Pivec said.
Drinking it in
The reasons for making the pilgrimage are as varied as the people waiting at the well.
For Cathy Lukehart, of Lynnwood, it’s sentimental. “It reminds me of when I was a little girl living in Idaho,” she said. “My grandparents had a silver mine and we’d go down and drink from the stream in a little silver cup.”
Marti Michaelson got hooked on the water when she lived in Shoreline and now makes the drive from La Conner. “It just has a good flavor,” she said. “I even like shampooing my hair in it.”
Julio Diaz, of Tulalip, uses well water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and greenery. “The plants were dying until I switched waters.”
He bought three 10-gallon orange Home Depot thermal water coolers with lids especially for the well. “It weighs 80 pounds when full,” he said. “I lift it up and it works out my core.”
And when he has to wait in line, it’s handy. “I can sit down.”
For Brian Dotson, of Everett, it’s about beer, camaraderie and making the wife happy.
“You meet all kinds of cool people. I’ve made some friendships. Met a guy who was into brewing. I make mead. Hippie booze. You can’t do that with chemicals,” Dotson said.
“My wife is a top-notch cook. We always use this. If she catches me putting stuff in food out of the tap I’m in big trouble,” he said. “I might get away with watering the dog.”
Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; abrown @heraldnet.com. Twitter: @reporterbrown.