By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The New Hampshire Drought Management Team this week designated Belknap County among six counties in the state as beset by "severe drought," and urged residents, both those served by community water systems and drawing from private wells, to refrain from using water outdoors until rainfall mitigates the dry conditions.
However, at the same time, the United States Drought Monitor, which is posted daily, reported "moderate drought" conditions in the southern corner of the county while describing conditions in the remainder of the county as "abnormally dry."
Either way, few would deny that a some steady rain would be welcome.
Laconia and Meredith draw their municipal water from the surface waters of Lake Winnipesaukee and Lake Waukewan while elsewhere in the county both community water supplies and privately owned wells, which draw on groundwater, may be at risk. The Pennichuck East Utility Company, which provides water service to a section of Barnstead, has banned outdoor water use there as well in a part of Tilton. The Lakes Region Water Company has banned outdoor watering at Paradise Shores and West point in Moultonborough, and The Patrician Shores Association in the northeast corner of Meredith has called for a voluntary restriction on outdoor water use. Altogether, more than 100 water systems, most in Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford counties, have imposed bans.
Seth Nuttelman, superintendent of the Laconia Water Works, said the clearest sign of the dry conditions has been a sharp increase in water usage, which climbed 13 percent in June. He said he expects a similar increase in July and August. With a plentiful supply, he does not anticipate imposing any restrictions on water use.
Brandon Kernen, a hydrogeologist with the agency, said Friday that the drought has arisen from the meager snowpack of the past winter and the scant rainfall since this spring. He explained that groundwater, drawn from underground aquifers, represents about 60 percent of the potable water supply. These sand and gravel acquirers are relatively shallow, between 30 feet and 100 feet deep, and in normal conditions recharge relatively quickly. But, he said, as water use has increased through the spring and summer, the sparse snowmelt and rainfall has stalled the recharge of the aquifers. Moreover, in the hot, dry conditions the rain that has fallen either evaporates, runs off the hard ground or fails to soak into the dry soil.
Brian Forst of Gilmanton, who farms 300 acres in Concord, 100 acres in Hartland, Vermont, and harvests from the New Hampshire Seacoast to Woodstock, Vermont, said, "We're sitting around waiting for the third cut of hay and I don't know if it will happen. In some places it's nonexistent."
He anticipated some hay crops could be a fifth of normal yields. Forst said that what rain has fallen has been spotty, dampening some areas while skipping others. Fields on the Seacoast, he said, are in the worst shape. We've had better years, Forst said.
"Our crops are suffering. Some years are good, some years are bad," he continued, recalling that when, as a young man, he complained, his father asked, "What are you going to do to change it?"
Larry Moore of Windswept Maples Farm in Loudon was not so gloomy.
"You can't except great weather for seven months," Moore said. "You've got to manage for it."
Moore, who grazes livestock and cuts hay, said that his land is blessed with heavy soil that retains moisture and he moves his animals every three or four days.
"They're not grubbing the grass to next to nothing," he explained. "If you keep it at 4 to 6 inches, it comes back quicker," Moore said. "We had a great first cut of hay" but admitted he was somewhat apprehensive about the second cut. "There's still time for it to turn around," he remarked. "I'm not a pessimist and I've got a barn full of hay."
Katie Surowiec of Surowiec Farm in Sanbornton said that, with only one well, they have fed their drip-irrigation system with a tanker truck, which adds to the expense of operating the farm. The field crops — beans, potatoes, peas and corn — she said "are on their own, but actually looking pretty good. Apart from the expense of irrigating, Surowiec said her only concern is that "crops are reining a little fast in the heat."
Bruce Cilley, executive director of the Farm Service Agency of the United States Department of Agriculture in Concord, said he has applied to the Secretary of Agriculture for a "secretarial drought disaster declaration," which would provide eligible farmers for assistance with losses incurred because of the drought. He said he was not aware of any losses reported to the agency's Merrimack-Belknap County Office.
Friday, Gov. Maggie Hassan wrote to Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture, also to request a disaster declaration for farmers in Grafton, Rockingham and Strafford counties, which would also qualify all contiguous counties for assistance. She noted that forage crops, pumpkin and blueberry crops in the three counties have suffered losses of more than 30 percent. The governor said she would request declarations for other counties should losses there exceed the threshold.
So far, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has encouraged residents to conserve water. However, Kernen said that by declaring a dought, the agency has given municipalities authority to impose mandatory restrictions, even on residents served by private wells, on water usage. He said that conservation is the first priority. If conditions linger and worsen, he said that the department could take steps to address failed private wells and strained water systems.
Speaking on New Hampshire Public Radio this week, Mary Stampone, the state climatologist, said that the most recent forecast by the National Weather Service indicated that the drought may persist through October.