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Drought continues to impact N.H. farms, forests and water supply

A sign on the side of a two lane road announces "RYE WATER: MANDATORY WATER RESTRICTION IN EFFECT." In the background, two people on a motorcycle drive away.
Dan Tuohy
A water restriction notice in Rye on August 7, 2022.

As drought persists across New Hampshire, the state’s Drought Management Team convened Monday to discuss the impact it’s having on agriculture, forests, tourism, and drinking water supplies.

Right now, most of the state is in a moderate drought, with a slice of the Southeast in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Conditions across the state are likely to persist until autumn, state officials said, and could intensify.

Climate change threatens to make droughts more common in New Hampshire, as hotter summers cause more evaporation, and rain can’t make up the difference.

Ted Diers, who administers the Watershed Management Bureau at the Department of Environmental Services, said drought is a unique kind of threat.

“Drought is a slow motion disaster. And so at the end of June, you know, we were a little worried,” he said. “As we head towards the middle of August, it's pretty concerning.”

Mary Stampone, New Hampshire’s state climatologist, said the drought was considered a rapid-onset drought, with the state moving into moderate and severe drought within a few weeks of developing abnormally dry conditions. The state has received between 50% and 75% of normal precipitation over the past few months, she said.

Drought affects lots of different systems, Diers told the state’s Drought Management Team on Monday, including soil, surface water and groundwater.

Groundwater levels in the Connecticut River Valley are particularly troubling, Diers said. That’s the underground water that makes up much of the supply communities use for public drinking water and agriculture.

“Not only are we seeing very low conditions; in some of these wells which have data going back a few decades, these are historically low conditions,” he said.

Some wells have suffered from a lack of snowpack over the winter, and never fully recovered from the droughts of 2020 and 2021, Diers said.

Statewide impacts 

Jeremy DeLisle, a field specialist at the University of New Hampshire’s cooperative extension, said the drought is affecting farmers across New Hampshire.

“One of the largest vegetable farms in New Hampshire, they're using hundreds of gallons of diesel per week to keep the pumps running. Diesel is not cheap right now. They're going to likely suffer yield losses,” he said.

Some farms are seeing smaller sized fruits and vegetables, lower yields, and poor growth. Hay growers are reporting lower than average production. Some farms are hauling water from miles away, he said.

The heat is having an impact, too. On hot days, it’s harder for some farmers to ventilate high tunnels, DeLisle said. And some farms are releasing crews early, which could also lead to losses.

In the forest, “things are definitely burning deep,” said Steve Sherman, chief of Forest Protection for the state.

So far, the state hasn’t had fires in locations that didn’t have a reliable water source nearby, or where they couldn’t transport water into, Sherman said.

“But as things continue, that's usually what we'll start to see,” he said. “We won't be able to tap into streams to get a hose laid in for an easier water source.”

As the national demand for firefighters picks up due to conditions in other states, some of New Hampshire’s firefighters get deployed to other emergencies. But based on fire danger in the Granite State, some of those people will start to be held back, Sherman said.

Stacy Lemieux, an officer with the White Mountain National Forest, said tree species are getting stressed because of the drought. The forest is still getting a lot of visitor traffic, but trails suffer under dry conditions, she said.

Ski resorts are hoping the state gets enough rain over the fall to ensure they have the water to make snow come winter, according to a written statement from Jessyca Keeler at Ski New Hampshire.

Brian Goetz, the deputy director of public works in Portsmouth, said things are looking okay for the city's water supply now – conditions aren’t as bad as they were in 2016 or 2020.

“Chances are we’ll all make it through. But it is the long term - it’s the deficit that we’ve continued to experience over and over,” that’s having an impact, he said.

As of August 3, 65 community water systems and 6 towns or cities have water restrictions in place, mostly in the Southeastern part of the state.

For private well owners, drought can have major impacts on water supply. Diers said his team has heard of up to 100 dry wells around the state from well companies, and have had direct notification of about 10 dry wells across the state.

Well drillers also say rapid real estate development and conversion of seasonal houses to year-round homes have created long wait times for service.

Private well assistance 

To assist with dry wells, New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services has started providing financial assistance to low-income Granite Staters whose water supplies are impacted by natural disasters.

“Oftentimes these are dug wells or shallow wells. And so they need help with trying to get them deepened,” Diers said. “Because of that deepening, [the wells] may require different kinds of treatment.”

There’s evidence that drought conditions can lead to higher concentrations of arsenic or uranium in well water, according to Joe Ayotte with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The state assistance program is now accepting applications from low-income residents whose wells are impacted. Granite Staters interested in applying can contact the program by calling 603-271-7179.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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