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As Commercial Wells Expand, Hampstead Residents Warn of 'Profits Over People'

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

A private water utility company is getting pushback for its plans to build a major commercial well in Hampstead.

The Hampstead Area Water Company (HAWC) wants a permit from the Department of Environmental Services (DES) to build a new well near Angle Pond. The well would pump up to 160 gallons per minute, a rate twice as fast as HAWC's existing wells in Hampstead and Atkinson.

HAWC's wells supply water to around a third of Hampstead and Atkinson residents and to commercial developments owned by HAWC's parent company, Lewis Builders Development. But HAWC has come under scrutiny after a DES report revealed that HAWC's pumping rates from the Hampstead bedrock aquifer caused nearby private wells to run dry in 2018.

In response, Hampstead voters approved a Water Resources Committee to study residential water issues, including HAWC's withdrawal practices. 

The Water Resources Committee answered questions for two hours on Wednesday night, at a gathering originally meant to serve as public hearing for DES on the Angle Pond well. 

The hearing was postponed because of last-minute scheduling issues with HAWC's consultant, but over 100 residents from Hampstead, Atkinson, and Sandown still showed up to learn about large withdrawal wells, a turnout that State Representative Joe Guthrie joked was bigger than most deliberative sessions.

Guthrie said local officials were looking at potential legislation to give towns more input into the permitting process for these wells.

Currently, the state relies on private companies to perform and submit their own testing on potential impacts of a proposed well.

Ken Richards, a member of the Hampstead Water Resources Committee questioned the thoroughness of HAWC's tests.

"We are concerned about what the impacts in town could be, and how many residential wells could potentially be impacted by the withdrawals," he said.

"It really needs to be looked at as a whole: what is the entire set of wells doing to our bedrock groundwater?"

Lee Sarapas, another member of the Hampstead Water Resources Committee, called HAWC's other wells "water-stressed" and in decline. 

"There are new homes being built that have water demands. Our suspicion is that part of the water will be used to address those needs; some of it might be used so [HAWC] can shut down inefficient expensive wells."

As part of a regional water project, HAWC will soon be purchasing up to 1 million gallons of water per day from Manchester, which some residents suggested could ease the demand on stressed wells in Hampstead.

But Joan O'Connell, of Hampstead, worried the Angle Pond well was already a done deal. 

"My concern is that this is profits before people," she said. "And the answer always is 'Oh well, what do we do?' That's not a good enough answer."

Sarapas said DES was likely to approve the well, but public pressure could force HAWC to settle for a lower pumping rate.

"We're not going to try to shut HAWC down," he said. "They supply water to a third of the people in our town. We're going to try to work with them to manage the resource responsibly."

If approved by the Department of Environmental Services, HAWC could start building the well this fall.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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