Drought 'a Slow Moving Natural Disaster'

The current drought is the worst New Hampshire has experienced in at least 16 years.

by Kiera Blessing, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass. / September 21, 2016

(TNS) - One Londonderry well owner left a trash can outside with the lid open in the rain Sunday night. She needs the water to flush her toilet.

She has also been doing laundry at her daughter's house, showering in small increments so as not to let the water run continuously, and using paper products at meal time to wash fewer dishes. She, like many of her neighbors in Southern New Hampshire, is experiencing the affects of a months-long drought.

While much of the state has been aware of the drought for weeks, the situation has continued to worsen, forcing many communities to begin considering — or enforcing — mandatory water bans. Salem has had one in affect since July, and Plaistow will begin enforcing one on Monday. Officials in Windham, Derry and Londonderry said the town councils and selectmen will discuss implementing bans in the coming days.

The new measures come as officials at the state level, including Gov. Maggie Hassan and the Department of Environmental Services, are stressing the importance of water conservation in the face of what DES Commissioner Tom Burack has called "a slow moving natural disaster."

'Extreme drought'

The current drought is the worst New Hampshire has experienced in at least 16 years. It's the first time the state has been in a designated "extreme drought" since the United States' Drought Monitor's inception in 2000. For reference, only California currently has a designation greater than "extreme" — in parts of the Golden State, the drought is considered "exceptional."

The drought, which came about through a combination of little rain, warm weather, high environmental demand over the summer from growing plants and little snowfall last winter, likely won't end until the spring when the snow melts — provided the region gets enough of the powdery stuff in the first place.

"We've been experiencing two years of well below-average precipitation. A storm or two will not be drought busters," Burack said during a conference call the DES held with the governor and several local communities on Friday. "The experts are telling us that we will need significant and sustained precipitation events throughout this fall and a snowy winter to recharge our groundwater."

Rockingham County has seen 10 to 15 fewer inches of rain in the last 180 days that it would in an average year, according to the National Weather Service. The rain from Sunday and Monday only accounted for about 1.5 to 2 inches in the northern part of the county, and even less to the south and east.

"Personally, I'm not a big fan of snowy winters," said Jim Martin, spokesman for the DES. "But I'll make an exception for this situation. We really need a wet and snowy winter so in the spring we can really get a recharge out of our groundwater systems."

Conservation efforts

Though the DES does not have the authority to implement water bans, individual municipalities do — so Friday, the department called on all cities and towns across the state to enforce mandatory water bans, Martin said.

"Based on information that was discussed at the drought management team meeting earlier (Friday)...and information that we're receiving via phone calls from residents around the state...we feel that it's important for every town to implement a mandatory ban," he said.

One of the most pressing concerns at this point is that soon, the ground will freeze, preventing the water tables from refilling. In New Hampshire, where the majority of residents rely on private, underground wells, this could pose an enormous financial burden for some residents if their well runs dry between now and the spring.

"Those who are already feeling water-stressed, those impacts are going to continue," said Mary Stampone, the state climatologist at the University of New Hampshire. "And it's not just for the folks on the wells. Some municipal water systems are also being stressed."

Indeed, the Hampstead Area Water Company has instituted a mandatory water ban in East Hampstead, Hampstead and Atkinson. Pennichuck Water Works has issued various levels of bans depending on the community, including total outdoor water bans in neighborhoods of Plaistow and Windham. Manchester Water Works hasn't issued any bans yet, but a spokesman said the company will be discussing the possibility of doing so next week.

Plaistow's Board of Selectmen voted Monday night to enforce a mandatory water ban across town, beginning Monday, Sept. 26. The ban will prohibit lawn watering, and the town is also asking that residents limit all outdoor water use, including car washing and pool filling.

"Plaistow is one of two communities in New Hampshire that does not have a pond or water body resource that can help support potable, safe water, so we rely on groundwater exclusively for residential purposes," said Town Manager Sean Fitzgerald. "Next to our citizens, water is our most precious resource."

Both Hampstead Area Water Company and the town of Plaistow will be enforcing the bans first with a written warning, then with fines if the violations continue.

Derry released a statement Friday that said the town "hopes that voluntary conservation efforts by its residents will be sufficient," but town Councilor Joshua Bourdon said Tuesday the council would be discussing the drought at that night's meeting. Several residents raised concerns on social media about businesses that continue to use sprinkler systems despite the drought.

"Our department heads continue to monitor the situation very closely. It continues to be an ongoing situation here as you know, and something that we take very seriously," Bourdon said. "Until we do decide, or not, to issue a mandatory ban in Derry, I would strongly urge residents to use their best judgment to use water as needed, to be mindful of their neighbors, not just in Derry but throughout the state."

Voluntary bans

State experts recommended that those in areas without a mandatory ban still make an effort to conserve water.

Gov. Hassan urged the public to use less water, even in areas without an official drought designation.

"At this time, water conservation is critical to extending the life of private wells and public water systems throughout the state, and I urge all Granite Staters to take steps to conserve water, including those who live outside of the currently designated drought areas," Hassan said in a statement.

Stampone, the state climatologist, noted that a significant snowfall this winter, which could, in the spring, end the drought, is not guaranteed.

"It's difficult to say when conditions are going to improve, so be prepared to be able to manage what we have," she said.

How you can conserve water at home:

— Stop watering the lawn. Lawn watering can cause household water use to more than double.

— Turn off the faucet while brushing teeth, washing hands or washing dishes to save 2.5 gallons per minute.

— Reduce shower time to save between 2.5 and 5 gallons per minute.

— Wash only full loads of laundry. Also consider replacing washers that are more than 10 years old; energy efficient washers can save up to 10 gallons of water per load.

— Fix running toilets. A running toilet can waste hundreds of gallons of water per day.

The state also recommends identifying savings or other financing options in case of failed wells.

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