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As New Hampshire Enters Extreme Drought, Officials Urge Water Conservation

Annie Ropeik

Part of New Hampshire has entered an extreme drought for only the second time in 20 years.

The extreme conditions center on the Dover area and extend in a circle from Great Bay, to near Concord, up to the Lakes Region.

The rest of the state is in severe drought, with moderate conditions in the Upper Valley and Monadnock Valley. 

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State water division director Tom O’Donovan says residents – especially well users – should prepare for a long haul, with little substantial rain in the forecast for at least the next few weeks.

“Go into conservation measures now,” he says. “Stop washing your car, find your leaks, reduce your loads of laundry to the minimum required, those kinds of things.”

The state recommends replacing older appliances and fixtures that can waste water, and offers other tips for residential well users.

O’Donovan also recommends letting lawns go dormant for winter now and limiting gardening to essential needs only. And he says things could get more serious. In the state’s drought of record, more than 50 years ago, residents were advised to take shorter showers.

New Hampshire’s only other extreme drought since 2000, when the current classification system took effect, was in 2016. That was also the hottest year ever recorded on Earth.

The Northeast is seeing heavier precipitation due to climate change, but also warmer temperatures, more sporadic rain patterns and less winter snow – all factors that cause drought.

Credit National Drought Monitor
Drought conditions as of Sept. 24, 2020.

In other climate impacts, the region could see some rain soon from tropical storms passing through the Atlantic -- but any apparent clouds may also be mixed with wildfire smoke from ongoing, deadly blazes in Western states. 

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O’Donovan says New Hampshire's well drilling companies, as they did in 2016, are now reporting huge demand and weeks-long delays installing new water sources for residents with shallow wells.

“Many of our residential owners and other well owners deepened their wells after the 2016 drought, so we are more resilient,” he says. “But still, a lot of people didn’t. So we have wells going dry already, and we expect that to increase.”

Is your well being affected by drought conditions in New Hampshire? Send us an email to tell us about it.

Residents can report well impacts to the state voluntarily through this survey. Private wells serve at least 40% of the state, but public water utility customers are also affected.

One hundred and sixty local water systems now have outdoor water use restrictions in place, covering about a quarter of the state’s population or 400,000 people.

If the drought extends into winter, O’Donovan says, the ground may be too dry when it freezes over, making it harder for the snowpack to recharge already depleted groundwater levels.

Credit Emily Quirk / NHPR
Crews extinguished a forest fire on a small island in the Merrimack River near Concord earlier this week.

Have you been affected by the drought or other aspects of climate change in New Hampshire? Take a quick survey to help shape our reporting project, By Degrees.

Right now, O’Donovan says most of the state’s rivers and streams are at 10% of their normal flows. It’s leading to irrigation difficulties and crop losses for farmers, especially in corn and wheat. Officials said earlier this month that they expect a federal disaster declaration soon to help affected growers.

O’Donovan says the low surface water levels and dry landscape also hurt wildlife, leading to illness, death and movement in search of water, meaning more animals may be killed on roads in developed areas.

The parched topsoil, leaf litter and vegetation in New Hampshire’s forests also create prime conditions for wildfires. Crews have contained several small fires in recent days. Some were started by improperly extinguished campfires, including in the White Mountain National Forest.

New Hampshire is not alone in New England in experiencing extreme drought. The same conditions now cover almost all of Rhode Island, some of Massachusetts’ south coast, Northeastern Connecticut and far southern and northern parts of Maine.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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