Drought Dries Thousands of Wells

Until recently, Robert Madison did not worry much about his water well. The 20-foot-deep well provided just enough for his family of 12.

Then it, and much of the East, began to dry up. Since last summer, the Madison family has had to cut showers short and cart drinking water into the home from a nearby spring.

Now he is one of hundreds of New Hampshire residents waiting out the second-worst drought in state history. Officials say that since the drought began late last summer, thousands of dug wells such as Madison's have gone dry. Dug wells are relatively shallow, reaching water 15 or 20 feet below the surface.

The drought stretches along almost the entire East Coast, from Maine to the Florida Panhandle, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Northern Florida is considered abnormally dry, which means it has received less than 75 percent of normal precipitation for three months. Eastern Maine is in an extreme drought, meaning the state has received less than 60 percent of normal precipitation for the last 6 months.

The rest of Maine, most of New Hampshire and southern New England are in severe drought, a more moderate condition. Vermont is the wettest part of New England this year, with most of the state having a moderate drought.

Other parts of the country are suffering as well.

Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico and Texas have areas of extreme drought, while areas of severe drought are found in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Oregon.

In New Hampshire, the drought came on slowly but could have troubling consequences, according to state climatologist Barry Keim.

Keim and other state officials warn that by spring and summer, when water demand spikes, already low groundwater, river, lake and reservoir levels could face critical shortages.

Part of the reason the drought sneaked up on the state is that last summer there was just enough rain to keep most people from noticing that things were drying out, Keim said. Since winter set in it has worsened.

"When you have a drought in the summer, the effects are more noticeable," he said. "People see plants and grass dying. But in the winter, no one notices anything is going on - until their well goes dry."

All but two of the New Hampshire's 24 groundwater monitoring wells are at record lows, said Jim Gallagher of the state Department of Environmental Services. The wells are part of a state and federal program and were installed in 1966 after the state's worst drought.

The drying of rivers and streams creates problems for cities and towns, many of which rely on them to fill their municipal reservoirs.

The relatively dry winter is not helping. When spring comes, there will be little snow to melt and refill the lakes.

Most municipal water departments say it is still too soon to enact water use bans, though Merrimack officials asked residents this month to conserve water to avoid a more severe problem later.

For farmers, the impact of the drought has yet to hit, though some perennial crops, such as apple trees and berry bushes, could be damaged because there is little snow cover to protect their roots from frost.

Wildlife experts say fish populations could be harmed and endangered plants and animals threatened. Some small streams will not be stocked with trout this spring if their water levels do not return to normal.

Boaters also will have problems if the drought doesn't turn around. Lake Winnipesaukee is at a record low level, some 34 inches below its summer level.

If it doesn't refill, state Fish and Game officials said boaters will encounter reefs and rocks that aren't on maps, and some boat launching ramps will be unusable.

So far, shallow residential wells are the hardest hit.


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