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Worsening N.H. Drought Strains Rivers, Water Wells And Farmers

Annie Ropeik
Golfers on a parched green at the Rockingham Country Club in Newmarket, where outdoor water use restrictions are in place.

New Hampshire’s ongoing drought has worsened again, with severe dryness now spreading into Grafton County and escalating impacts to surface water and agriculture.

At a meeting Thursday, officials said nearly the entire state remains in a drought, with the worst of it stretching from the Seacoast into the lower White Mountains.

Outdoor water use restrictions are in place for more than 100 water systems. The towns of Windham, Lincoln and Exeter have mandatory restrictions even for private well users.

Surface waters are showing the effect statewide: The Lamprey and Souhegan rivers are nearing historically low levels, which state watershed administrator Ted Diers said can be dangerous for fish.

“We actually have some rivers that are essentially dry,” he said. “We see a lot of rivers that are essentially only the deepest parts.”

The state has conducted some controlled releases of water from dammed lakes to replenish depleted rivers. But groundwater reserves have also dropped, as much as 10 feet near the town of Kingston.

This story is part of By Degrees, NHPR's climate change reporting project. Click here to see more and share your ideas and questions for future stories.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
The Lamprey River is visibly lower than its high water mark at a state boat launch in Stratham.

Homeowners with bedrock wells aren’t reporting serious issues yet. But state well program manager Abby Fopiano said people should still be conservative – even with rain and cooler temperatures in the forecast that could improve drought conditions.

“The drop in groundwater levels response occurs after we see the drought monitor show higher severity drought,” she said.

Surface drinking water supplies are also affected. Officials say Lake Massabesic, which supplies water for Manchester, is several feet lower than normal – around the level it saw during the 2016-2017 drought.

Meanwhile, George Hamilton with UNH Cooperative Extension in Hillsborough County said many New Hampshire farmers are losing fruit and vegetable crops and running low on hay to feed dairy cows.

A federal farm disaster is expected to be declared by the end of the month, giving growers more access to loans and reimbursements to haul water for animals.

“Farmers have to decide which crops they want to save and put their water resources to those higher value crops,” Hamilton said. “I’ve seen some wicked low soil moisture levels.”

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
A farmer in Stratham harvests corn as the drought wears on into September.

Hamilton said he recently visited an orchard in Laconia where “literally there was no water in the soil going down one foot.” He said this puts young trees with immature root systems at particular risk.

Dry ground can also fuel wildfires. State officials said high humidity has kept fires to a minimum so far this year – only about 100 acres have burned, mainly due to lightning strikes and a few smoldering camp fires.

That’s low for this point in the year, but officials cautioned that could change later this season – as with the fall 2017 Dilly Cliff Fire in North Woodstock, which scorched 75 acres after a summer of severe drought. 

When it comes to climate change, the Northeast's story has generally been one of more precipitation. But officials said even the heavy bursts of rain New Hampshire has seen this summer have not absorbed well into the dry ground. 

Science shows that climate change is also causing precipitation to be more sporadic, with periods of hotter, dryer weather and drought in between. This fuels fires, strains water supplies and reshapes the growing season even as the region trends wetter overall. 

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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