Drought Preparedness and Response in New Hampshire: What Can Municipalities Do?

Brandon Kernen

The lack of snow and the unseasonably warm New Hampshire winter have many people across the state thinking about the potential for drought this spring or summer. Because drought is progressive in nature and comes on slowly, it is often not recognized until it reaches a severe level. New Hampshire experienced a limited drought in the summer of 2010 and the third worst drought on record from 2001-2003.

Drought occurs when there is a deficiency in precipitation over an extended period resulting in water shortages and causing adverse impacts on vegetation, animals, and, sometimes, people. Drought monitoring, assessment, and response are managed by a Drought Management Team in New Hampshire consisting of federal, state, municipal, environmental, recreational, business, and industry officials. The Drought Management Team is coordinated by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES). The Drought Management Team provides water users, municipalities, and the public with information about drought conditions and impacts as well as recommended actions that can be taken to prepare for and respond to drought.

Municipalities most often deal directly with the impacts of a drought, particularly water supply shortages for both public water systems and neighborhoods where each home has an on-lot private well. For example, during the 2001-2003 drought, numerous private wells had become dewatered and many well contractors had up to an eight-month backlog of scheduled work to address these wells. In some instances, homeowners could not afford to replace or deepen their wells. Many private and municipally-owned public water systems also faced significant shortages and had to develop emergency water supply sources and implement outdoor water use bans.

The lack of precipitation is the root cause of a water shortage during a drought, but a major factor exacerbating the shortage is the increased discretionary use of water for lawn watering when precipitation is not adequate to optimally maintain lawns. Metered water use data has shown that residential water use normally increases by 100 percent during the summer months when compared to wintertime usage. In addition, water use in summers with drought-like conditions is approximately 50 percent higher when compared to water use in summers with at least average precipitation.

During the 2001-2003 drought, many municipally and privately owned public water systems implemented outdoor water use restrictions or bans for their customers in accordance with state law and regulations. Many of these utilities utilized model regulations and guidance material provided by the DES to implement the water use restrictions. However, many communities are faced with a scenario where there are numerous public water systems and private wells densely located near one another that share a common aquifer as a source of water. So while some public water systems and private well owners were attempting to conserve water and develop new emergency supplies during the 2001-2003 drought, other water users nearby were using excessive volumes of water to maintain lawns. Neither the state nor municipal government had clear legal authority to limit excessive water use for discretionary purposes during a declared drought even though it was evident these water uses threatened public health and safety.

After the 2001-2003 drought, a new state law was enacted that enables municipalities to limit or ban residential lawn watering when the state or federal government has designated the area as being under a declared state or condition of drought. Municipalities have the sole discretion deciding where and to what extent residential lawn watering needs to be restricted during a declared drought. RSA 41:11-d, Restricting the Watering of Lawns, establishes a process that the local governing body can take to establish regulations to restrict the use of water from private wells or public water systems for residential lawn watering. The local governing body must give notice at least three calendar days by publication in two public places and posting in two public places before the regulations are implemented. DES coordinated with the Local Government Center to develop guidance and a model regulation that municipalities may use to implement residential lawn watering restrictions during a drought in accordance with RSA 41:11-d.

Municipalities can reduce the susceptibility of their community to drought by requiring new developments to meet certain water efficiency requirements for landscaping. Additionally, municipalities can adopt minimal well-yield requirements and associated testing requirements for water sources that are associated with new development. These types of requirements are especially prudent in areas that historically have experienced water shortages or where groundwater storage and recharge are already relatively low, such as developments in areas of higher relative elevation.

For more information or to obtain the model regulations described above, please contact the DES Water Conservation Program or visit http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/dwgb/water_conservation/index.htm.

Brandon Kernen, PG, is the Supervisor of Hydrology and Water Conservation at DES. Contact Brandon at 603.271.0660 or Brandon.Kernen@des.nh.gov.
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