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Water Restrictions Spread Across N.H, State Urges Fireworks Caution As Drought Deepens

Elizabeth Burakowski

State officials are encouraging caution with fireworks this Fourth of July weekend to prevent wildfires amid the drought, which has now spanned more than a year and is prompting a rising number of local restrictions on outdoor water use.

The latest national forecast, out Thursday, shows nearly all of the state's Northern counties, from the Lakes Region to the Great North Woods, are in a moderate drought. New Hampshire has had three of its worst droughts on record in the past 20 years. 

A large portion of Vermont is also in a moderate drought, and there’s a slice of severe drought in Eastern Coos County that extends into central Maine. Most of southern and central New Hampshire and those neighboring states are rated abnormally dry.

The drought began in May 2020 and has impacted local water supplies for hundreds of thousands of residents, while raising the risk of small fires spreading out of control, burning forests or even homes. State officials say it’s also made it harder to access water for firefighting.

Currently, more than 80 local water systems have limits in place on outdoor water use. Most of them are mandatory, which means residents should consult their water provider for details on if and when they are allowed to wash their cars or water their gardens, among other activities. 

It also indicates that private well users should be conservative, despite being unregulated, since they rely on some of the same stressed aquifers that provide many public water supplies. 

Utilities with mandatory restrictions include Aquarion on the Seacoast, Tamworth and a few other parts of the Lakes Region Water Company's territory, the Merrimack Village District and many neighborhoods and properties served by Pennichuck and Pennichuck East.

Several town water utilities also have mandatory restrictions in place, including Dover, Exeter, Central Hooksett, Lebanon, Newmarket, New London-Springfield, Pittsfield, Rollinsford and Salem. Cut-backs are voluntary but encouraged for customers in Portsmouth and at Pease Tradeport, Antrim, Bennington, Lincoln, Rye and Seabrook.

Climate change stresses aquifers

Dover's restrictions are some of the latest in the state, announced Thursday. The city was also among the first to urge conservation this past spring. They say some of their aquifers are now below the levels seen at this time last year or in the state’s severe 2016 drought.

Dover says their new emergency order means no outside lawn watering of any kind, and no washing of vehicles or filling of swimming pools above 100 gallons. Garden watering by hand is allowed. Commercial car washes and agricultural or garden operations are also not included.

Dover city manager Michael Joyal said in a press release that residents are encouraged, though not required, to take other steps. That includes fixing leaks and running toilets in their homes, limiting shower times and laundry, and turning off their faucets while brushing teeth, doing dishes and washing hands. 

Joyal said the restrictions aim "to ensure a sustainable drinking water supply throughout the summer [and] "will likely remain in place until we see significant rainfall and the aquifers relied upon for the city’s drinking water supply have been replenished." 

New Hampshire has been well below average on precipitation throughout the past year. A short winter also gave aquifers less time to recharge and recover. Dover's press release says June was the driest month the National Weather Service has seen at Skyhaven Airport, in neighboring Rochester, since 2000, when record-keeping began.

It was also the hottest June on record for Manchester, Boston and Portland, Maine, according to preliminary NWS data. At least one day reached 100 degrees, an extreme rarely seen in this region but forecast to increase in frequency with climate change. This comes after 2020 ranked as the second-hottest year on record globally. 

Climate change is making the Northeast wetter overall, but that rain is falling more sporadically and comes with hotter weather and dry stretches, setting up the possibility of more of these short-term droughts

This latest one prompted the state to take some first-time response measures last fall, including an emergency aid program for low-income homeowners whose wells run dry — which still has hundreds of thousands of dollars available —  and a brief ban on smoking and campfires near public woodlands.

Not an 'asbestos forest,' officials urge firework safety due to risks of forest fire

State officials have continually urged caution around brush burning and forest fires, despite recent rain and the Northeast’s reputation for having a so-called asbestos forest. 

They say this is a myth. Forest fires can and do happen here. The state tends to lose about 200 acres of woods to fire each year, almost all due to human activity, like campfires, cigarettes or sparks from things like fireworks and machinery. In recent months, multiple brush fires have spread and damaged structures in New Hampshire. 

New Hampshire officials note that used fireworks can also be hot enough to start fires. They say to avoid setting off fireworks in areas with lots of dry brush or leaves.

“Even something as small as a sparkler can start a fire, not just because they throw sparks but also because they retain heat once they’ve burned,” said state forest protection bureau chief Steve Sherman in remarks prepared for a press conference in Concord. “If you put them down on something combustible once you think you’re done with them, you could easily start a fire.”

If a fire does start, he says to drown it with plenty of water, stirring it into the embers until they’re saturated and cold. The same principles apply to safely extinguishing a campfire.

The fireworks warning comes amid another historic, climate-change linked drought and fire season in the Western U.S., which often sees a huge spike in wildfires around the Fourth of July. New Hampshire has also experienced its second heat wave of the season. 

Officials in the White Mountain National Forest are beginning an effort this year to more proactively burn brush on the edges of the public lands, near homes, to prevent damaging fires like those often experienced in states like California.

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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