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N.H. Well Owners Hit Hard By Severe Drought Conditions

Annie Ropeik

Parts of New Hampshire continue to experience extreme drought conditions. The state has put a ban on campfires near public woodlands in response, and well drilling companies are overwhelmed with calls.

Abby Fopiano is the state's well water program manager. NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with her about the statewide effects of this drought, and what people can do about it.

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Rick Ganley: Let's put this drought into historical context, how bad is this?

Abby Fopiano: We are in a severe drought. It is bad. From what I'm hearing and what I see, it's not as bad as the 2016 drought that we went through. And it's not as bad as the 2001 into 2002 drought that we went through. So unfortunately, we have some to compare to. And I guess it's good that this one is not as bad, but it is still severe and we're having issues now in other parts of the state that we haven't really seen before.

Rick Ganley: What are some of those issues?

Abby Fopiano: So we're finding that this drought is impacting the North Country, the White Mountains and north, more than some previous droughts. The poverty level in the North Country is higher than it is for the rest of the state. And many of these homes do run off dug wells and are having issues. And they really can't afford to take any mitigation measures. So there are quite a few homes that are, at this point, surviving without water. So whether they're pulling in or taking home gallons of water just to flush the toilets every day, or not showering for extended periods of time, that's happening.

Rick Ganley: It's just not a sustainable way to live, of course, and it costs a lot of money.

Abby Fopiano: It does cost a lot of money. And for those that can't afford it, it's going to be a long road if things don't improve.

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Rick Ganley: Do you have any numbers as to how many homes have currently run out of water?

Abby Fopiano: I have heard from the industry that many companies are getting upwards of 20 calls a day of people that have no water. Any no water call always has to be vetted to see if it's truly a drought issue or another pump issue. But at this point in time, many are drought related. And we have hundreds of well companies throughout the state. So we have hundreds of wells really feeling the impacts of drought every day.

Rick Ganley: I know, of course, we're getting some rain now. We're expecting maybe two or three inches over the course of the week. How much of a dent will that put into the drought conditions?

Abby Fopiano: It will help. When that rain comes down, the first thing is going to do is really help everything on the surface. So the vegetation, some small creeks and smaller rivers might see an influx of water. Things are pretty dry that it's first going to just go to trying to soak in that shallow ground. What actually makes it down into our sand and gravel, and then into bedrock, is going to be pretty low just from these short periods of rain that we're going to get this week.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, it takes a long, sustained event, doesn't it?

Abby Fopiano: Correct. If we're really talking about groundwater supplies, we really need long periods of steady rain to help recharge those aquifers.

Rick Ganley: I want to ask you about drilling companies. We're hearing reports that they've got huge demand, weeks long delays installing new wells or new water sources. What do you recommend for people if they need these services, but they can't access them because of cost or maybe because of a long wait?

Abby Fopiano: I would say the first thing to do is, is to call around and try to get on a wait list, because you never know how things are going to improve or not improve as we go into the future. But then start thinking about other options. You might be able to survive by having an auxiliary tank put on to your home and have that filled up by a bulk water hauler every so often. And then essentially you're just running your home off a separate tank again. Again, you're going to be following conservation measures and not have too much water to use at one time. But you'd be able to, you know, flush the toilets, take a shower, do some laundry if you need to.

Another option is to talk with your neighbors. If you happen to be in a location where you have neighbors nearby, you might be able to share water sources. Bedrock wells are particularly interesting in that your well on your property may be going dry and you have real problems, but your neighbor could be just fine and really have enough water to share. So if you could try to share with the neighbors, sometimes you really can just connect the hose between two homes and feel relief that way.

Rick Ganley: More than 160 local water systems have outdoor water use restrictions in place. Most of these are voluntary. How does the drought affect people who are connected to city and town municipal water systems?

Abby Fopiano: So the number one key is conservation. And with conservation, we have limiting outdoor water use, and that's really what the public water system restrictions entail. So this does impact some homeowners who who really have put a lot of energy and finances into their lawns and landscaping where now they don't have the water to be able to upkeep that. That does get tough for some people. But being on a public water system, there is kind of some shared responsibility that you should limit your water use. And outdoor water use takes up to ten times more than domestic uses.

Rick Ganley: You know, even in late September, I'm still seeing automatic sprinkler systems on in various places. And you wonder about that kind of usage. So if this doesn't ease up, if we don't get some replenishing long term rainstorms, what are you most worried about?

Abby Fopiano: The thing I fear most right now is that we really don't get this long, steady rains this fall and we get into frost and frozen ground. And we may have a good snowpack, but if we don't have a nice slow snow melt, then that's not going to recharge. So if we don't get the rain in the fall to help recharge and we don't get that runoff in the spring to help recharge, we're going to be in a much worse situation come next spring into next summer. And and I do worry that we're going to have a lot more problems, and many more wells feeling the impact and an industry that is overworked and overwhelmed by it.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR. She manages the station's news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can email her at mmcintyre@nhpr.org.

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