Fight with City Hall Ends Well

This piece works better if you quietly hum, “This Land is Your Land” as you read it. Woody Guthrey and I have different opinions of what his song means, but it does stir up the patriotic juices whatever your interpretation.

“You can’t fight city hall,” so the saying goes. But I did.

I love my town, Provo Utah, but I also strongly believe the government should not roll over the people; especially if what they (the government) want to do is illegal. This was. The state law prescribes that no city can annex land unless a majority of the land owners in the proposed area request it.

Our family and others lived in the county fairly close to the city boundaries. We wanted to keep our open spaces and rural atmosphere. The city saw us as potential property tax income. They tried to persuade/pressure us to request annexation. In the case of our home, the pressure bordered on literal. We could either join the city, or not go to the bathroom. That is they would shut off the culinary water to our house. We paid for water supplied by city pipes.

Draping myself in the American revolutionary flag proclaiming “Don’t Tread on Me,” and whistling “Yankee Doodle,” I headed for the state house in Salt Lake City. The state hydrologist agreed with my position, and issued me a permit to drill a well. A well permit in our arid state where water is more precious than gold is the equivalent of having squatter’s rights on Sutter’s Mill stream in the days of the California gold rush.

However drilling a well is equivalent to building Sutter’s Mill. Every foot down costs a week’s worth of groceries. But I had set my flinty face against tyranny, or maybe I was just pig headed. Whatever, I hired a driller, and down went his bit, cachunk, cachunk, cachunk. Each cachunk was a twenty dollar bill flying out of my wallet. Ninety percent of American land has water within fifty feet down. We are part of the lucky ten percent, 100 feet, cachunk 200 feet cachunk, cachunk, 300 feet, I’m thinking, “Will we have to suck water from the Yalu River in China?” At 305 feet a tiny dribble, 325 feet a modest underground seep. Dr. Keith Hooker, my neighbor who sank (literally) some money into the hole, and I decided we will go with that. “And so we lived happily ever after…”


Driving a six inch casing pipe into the ground is just the beginning of the fun especially if you are a naive do it yourselfer like me always looking for new thrills. After the well is dug, you have to lower a pump and connecting steel pipe down to the bottom of the well. This is done by the well drilling company for a fairly hefty price. I said, “I can do that. What could go wrong?” Don’t ask. You may find out.

I bought three long pipes from a scrap yard, bolted them into a tripod tepee over the well pipe. I hooked a hand powered pulling tool called a comealong to the top, and hoisted a 20 foot long, 60 pound section of pipe to it. I climbed up the tepee and lifted the handle on the comealong. The pipe descended toward the well about half an inch. So far so good. Another lift of the handle, another half inch. In only 480 lifts and lowerings of the comealong handle I had the first pipe and the well pump dangling down from the top of the well casing. Only 13 more pipe sections to go. Or in another image which I preferred to not think about, it would be like crawling across a football field, including one end zone with your fingers taking half inch steps. hoping not to be whip lashed by speeding snails coming up behind you. But, hey, after only 7,200 pumps on the comealong I had the pump snugly at the bottom of the well (actually 10 feet above so I didn’t pump dirt off the bottom.)

The good part about drilling a well on our property is that we have no rocks for 300 feet down, so we were able to drill the well straight. The bad part is that we met a big rock at that depth, and it bent our well casing slightly. The really bad part was that that bend scraped bare the wires, and shorted out the connection to the pump as it went past the rock. That meant inching back up the football field to fix it. Which I did.

The trip back down was made easier with a block and tackle my friend Don Budge lent me. It was not freeway speed. I still had to climb up the tripod, and screw on the pipe sections, but I was getting better at the process.

Until at about 200 feet down. The pipe slipped off its hook and a thousand pounds of pump and pipe headed for middle earth. Instinctively (euphemism for stupidly) I grabbed the pipe. The brace at the end of the pipe slammed down onto the iron well casing within half a hair of making me a four finger guitar player. It instantly turned my thumbnail black and caused me to exclaim something like, “My my, this is an interesting development.” or words to that effect.

I took off a few days for R and R, then returned to the project, lowered the pump, flipped the switch, and… nothing happened. The fall had killed the pump.

My music/comedy performing partner Dick Davis and I were now appearing as “The D’s, Dick and Duane” since Denis left the group. We had a tour on the east coast, so I reluctantly parted with the joys of well digging for a couple of weeks. My luck traveled with me. At Cornell University in Ithaca New York, we parked our truck and camper on an incline. The road was icy so we blocked one wheel with a big stone. That worked well except we also dropped the rock on my foot breaking two toes. As true troopers we did the show that night and finished the tour. I went back to the well.

It was early winter now, snow flurries sometimes whipped around me as I dragged my cast up and down the tripod, unscrewed pipes on the way up fixed the motor and screwed pipes together on the way down. I flipped the switch not daring to expect anything.

Miracle! Water gushed up the well and into a hose I had attached. Three hundred pounds of water pressure turned the hose into a twenty foot snake weaving and whipping above me. (I hadn’t hooked up the pressure limiter on the well, and frankly wasn’t interested in doing so. I was having too much fun.) Finally I reluctantly turned the pump off, then turned it on a few more times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

The well worked perfectly until once when I was on tour, the children turned it on by mistake, ran the pump dry and burned out the motor. I pulled it out, but it was toast.

Meanwhile, the city changed tactics. They realigned their proposed annexation boundaries to include a big section of land owned by developers who wanted to put their land into the city. This made my neighbors and me a minority of the property holders, so we could be swept in against our will.

So yes, you can fight city hall. You just can’t win. But Provo is a fine city full of great people As Shakespeare wrote, “All’s well that ends well.” This saga ended with a well. Now if I can just figure a way to get the water out of it without another trip down the pipe. I’m open to suggestions.