Large sustained well water level changes (>10 cm) in response to distant (more than hundreds of kilometers) earthquakes have proven enigmatic for over 30 years. Here we use high sampling rates at a well near Grants Pass, Oregon, to perform the first simultaneous analysis of both the dynamic response of water level and sustained changes, or steps. We observe a factor of 40 increase in the ratio of water level amplitude to seismic wave ground velocity during a sudden coseismic step. On the basis of this observation we propose a new model for coseismic pore pressure steps in which a temporary barrier deposited by groundwater flow is entrained and removed by the more rapid flow induced by the seismic waves. In hydrothermal areas, this mechanism could lead to 4 ?? 10-2 MPa pressure changes and triggered seismicity.