Grading New Hampshire's Drinking Water Infrastructure

May 8, 2017

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the Granite State a C-minus on its 2017 report card...But aging systems, drought, and such contaminants as PFOAs raise questions about how best to repair our drinking water systems, and how to afford it. 


  • Logan Johnson - Civil engineer who serves on the Board of Directors for the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which released its infrastructure report card for the state in March. 
  • Jason Moon -  Seacoast reporter for NHPR, who has been covering water contamination issues across the state. 
  • Sarah Pillsbury - Administrator for the Drinking Water and Groundwater Bureau for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.
  • Erik Olson - Director of the Health Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he directs advocacy for drinking water protection, and other issues related to health, agriculture, and the environment. Read the recent report from the NRDC about drinking water infrastructure. 

Highlights from the conversation:

Erik Olson says that high risk areas for drinking water contamination include rural water systems:

In smaller water systems, they don't have the economies of scale, meaning they don't have enough customers to afford the top quality equipment, and sometimes, they don't have a full-time operator.

Later in the hour, Sarah Pillsbury noted that New Hampshire is one the most rural states in terms of drinking water systems, and therefore, might be most at risk:

85 percent [of our water systems] serve less than 500 is a function of the rural nature of our state. It does make it very challenging. [If] you have a small rate base, and you need to replace your pipes, you need to put in different treatment, you need to develop a new well because you're drought sensitive, that's big dollars for those rate payers. 

Olson also says that nationally, our water systems are sometimes more than 100 years old:

We're kind of living on the investments of our great-grandparents, and our great-great grandparents...unfortunately, we have kind of forgotten about them, they are out of sight, out of mind. 

Logan Johnson agrees that this is true in the Granite State, with much of the current infrastructure reaching the end of its life:

It's been about 50 years since we've really had a big investment and that's about how long these pipes last, so we're right there. And then the other thing we see is the emerging contaminants, and the droughts, which are putting stress on the systems that we already have, and putting stress on people in the system, and people who are on their own private drinking water. 

Johnson says that the drought is a new problem that the state does not have plans to manage. Pillsbury notes that an independent research team found the state needed to invest approximately $857 million in drinking water infrastructure in the next ten years, however:

That wasn't taking into account the possibility of the need to develop new sources because of [the system] being very sensitive to drought conditions, and it wasn't taking into account emerging contaminants.

Therefore, the cost to repair and maintain drinking water infrastructure may actually be much higher than originally estimated. 

Emerging contaminants have been in the news lately, including at the former Pease Air Force Base. The New Hampshire Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted today to endorse a bill that would lower limits for contaminants such as PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) in the state to below current EPA guidelines.

Pillsbury defines an emerging contaminant as something in the water that wasn't originally being tested for, that has now become a problem. Emerging contaminants are among the suspected chemicals to have contributed to a cancer cluster on the seacoast, as reported by Jason Moon

Pillsbury says the state has been aggressive in looking for emerging contaminants elsewhere in the state, but that she doesn't think that changing the standards to be more rigorous than current EPA guidelines will  help the problem:

The ambient groundwater standard, at 70 parts per trillion, is in line with what the EPA did. They are a very large group of scientists that peer-reviewed the whole thing...I don't think we are fighting that in any big way at all, I think we're just saying, 'Let's keep it scientifically based, and let's use the proven scientific standards that are out there, and well accepted, and [have] a consensus.'

Pillsbury encourages the audience to check out information related to the current standards on the Department of Environmental Services Drinking Water and Groundwater Bureau website.