Drought helps well companies, hurts landscape businesses

The worst drought in decades has created a business boom for Indiana's well-drilling companies, whose crews are working long hours to dig new, deeper wells or install new pumps for homeowners whose wells ran dry.

Meanwhile, lawn-care and landscaping companies are scrambling to find work as the drought that's withered farmers' crops aids some businesses but harms others.

Bruce Moss, co-owner of Moss Well Drilling in Noblesville, said his business began picking up in the spring and only grew as the drought intensified. He estimated it's up 25 percent over last year and said crews have been working long hours to keep up with customers' demand.

"It's been an incredibly busy summer and we expect it to pretty much stay that way for a while," he said.

Some customers have required new, deeper wells, but most just needed to have their water pumps lowered deeper into their wells or a new pump installed to get the water flowing again, he said.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources' water division has received dozens of calls about wells running dry this summer, said Mark Basch, who oversees the division's water rights and use section. The drought has spurred more pumping of water from the state's aquifers — the water layers far below the ground — and he said that's impacted many wells by lowering the water table significantly in some areas.

Most of the extra pumping is being done by large farms irrigating crops, golf courses and municipal water plants serving communities that haven't enacted watering bans, he said.

"You talk to any water well driller or pump installer and they're staying very busy," Basch said. "They're having a hard time keeping up."

Although the drought has been a boon for businessmen like Moss, it's created frustration for landscaping and lawn-care businesses in communities that have watering restrictions.

Jeff Gatewood has never seen a summer this bad in 36 years at Allisonville Nursery in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers.

Indianapolis had its hottest July on record, with temperatures topping 90 degrees on 28 days, and less than an inch of rain fell in June and July.

"We've now gone where nobody's gone before. Hot, dry, hot, dry, record-setting all the time," Gatewood said.

With business down 20 percent to 30 percent because of the weather, he quit ordering new plants in June and cut hours and staff. Then he decided to get creative.

The nursery held a "heat stroke" sale in late July, offering customers a chance to buy plants and pick them up later, once cooler temperatures arrive and local watering bans are lifted. That brought people in and helped business some, he said.

"We're seeing a pent-up demand like a dam wanting to break. I think once we see cooler temperatures in the lower 80s, get a little rain shower — that's going to help," he said.

The nursery has clustered plants in shaded areas to protect them.

Aaron Stigall, who owns Ross Lawns & Landscaping in New Castle, said he employed 18 workers each of the past three years, but this year he cut his staff to six because the drought sharply reduced demand for his services.

"We can't spray or apply fertilizer and weed killers because the turf is under stress," he said. "And we can't mow."

Landscaping also is out of the question because transplanted shrubs and trees must be watered, but that's not allowed in areas with restrictions. Instead, Stigall's workers are installing paved patios and retaining walls and doing concrete repairs.

He's hoping rain and cooler temperatures arrive soon to bring revive lawns and his business.

Rich Blankenship, the president of the Indiana Nursery and Landscape Association, said the drought and watering bans have hurt many landscapers, including the Indianapolis firm, Mark M. Holeman Inc., where he's vice president.

Since Indianapolis' privately run water utility, Citizens Water, banned watering in July, he said his firm's business has plunged.

"Sales have absolutely gone over the cliff. It's just like winter came six months early," Blankenship said.

His company has had to lay off workers, cut hours and lower wages. And Blankenship said the drought and municipal water bans have had a cascade effect by hurting suppliers of plants, trees, flowers, fertilizers and other products.

"It's having quite a ripple effect across our industry — it's just not landscape contractors. It's everyone connected to us," he said.

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