The Municipal Role in Managing a Drought Emergency in New Hampshire

Brandon Kernan

Southern New Hampshire is experiencing a drought emergency, having received about 50% of its normal rainfall over the last six months. Streamflow and groundwater levels are at historic lows. Some New Hampshire residents on private wells, as well as some community water systems, are experiencing water supply shortages. More widespread shortages are imminent if rainfall does not replenish our lakes, streams, and groundwater supplies before winter weather sets in, as our water resources will probably not be substantially refilled until after the snowmelt during the spring of 2017. The drought condition is a very slow-moving natural disaster that may continue to worsen.  So what is the municipal role in managing such a drought emergency in New Hampshire?

Municipal Authority to Restrict Lawn Watering - Average indoor water use per capita in New Hampshire is approximately 63 gallons per day. In the summer, total water use increases to 93 gallons per capita per day due to outdoor water use, mostly attributed to lawn watering.  Since July of this year, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) has encouraged New Hampshire residents to stop lawn watering immediately in response to the drought. Public water systems in New Hampshire have authority to restrict or ban residential lawn watering by their customers. Municipalities have broader authority under RSA 41:11-d to adopt regulations to restrict or ban outdoor lawn watering for households that obtain water from either a private well or public water system.  Those restrictions can take effect when the state or federal government has declared a state of drought.

In order to adopt residential lawn watering regulations for drought conditions, the local governing body may establish the regulations after public notice that includes publication in a paper of general circulation in the municipality and in at least two public places. The regulations may be implemented and enforced three calendar days following notification. The minimum notification requirements are provided in the statute, but towns are encouraged to find supplemental means of notification to residents. RSA 41:11-d allows for broad flexibility in developing residential lawn watering restrictions. The governing body of the municipality can specify how, where, when, and to what extent the lawn watering restrictions apply. The governing body may also enforce the lawn watering restrictions by imposing fines in accordance with RSA 625:9. More information about lawn watering restrictions, including model regulations, can be found at http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/dwgb/water_conservation/documents/mo-lawn-watering-rstrctn.pdf.

Municipalities Providing Emergency Water Supplies to the Public

A number of municipalities have provided access to an emergency water supply for use by residents that rely on private wells impacted by drought. Some municipalities have designated a location in town where people can get water. Where possible, municipalities should designate a local source of water that is already associated with a state regulated public water system to ensure the water is safe. If a source of drinking water is made available to the public that is not associated with a public water system, please contact NHDES at (603) 271-0660 to request testing of the water to ensure its safety.

Fire departments have also delivered drinking water to area farms to provide water for livestock or to irrigate crops. These efforts are critical to area farmers who are struggling to grow food for their livestock and provide them drinking water. Fire departments should not use their tanks to deliver water to households by refilling wells, nor should water from fire department tanks be used for human drinking and cooking. This activity could result in contamination of groundwater and cause people consuming the water to become sick.

Wintertime Recommendations for Households on Private Wells

All wells are susceptible to the effects of drought, and households with private wells that fail may incur substantial expenses to improve or replace their well. There are several things well users can do to deal with this situation.

Manage Your Water Use - Spread out the timing of water use so that multiple water uses do not co-occur so the well has time to replenish.

Address Water Supply Problems Before Winter - If your water supply is currently becoming dewatered, now is the time to address the deficiencies. Deferring work is risky because completing the work may not be possible and/or could be more costly in the winter.

Financial Preparedness - Households should identify savings or other financing options for addressing failed water supply wells. 

Well Location and Basic Information – Maintain records showing the exact location of the well and/or maintain a well location marker that can be identified during all seasons. Maintain records regarding your well construction and pump work. Records for wells constructed after 1984 can be found online at http://www4.des.state.nh.us/DESOnestop/BasicSearch.aspx.

Detailed drought guidance for households on private wells including financial assistance programs for very low income households in rural areas can be found at http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/dam/drought/documents/droughtguidehome.pdf.

Reducing Water Use in the Winter Months

Even during the winter, when lawn watering is not occurring, hundreds of gallons of water a day can be conserved in the home. Opportunities for reducing water use are listed below.

Sink Faucets – Whether you are brushing your teeth, washing your hands, or washing dishes, turn off the faucet to save 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm). For further savings, replace bathroom sink aerators with a 1.5 gpm aerator.

Showerheads - Reduce shower time to save anywhere from 2.5 gpm to 5 gpm. Look closely at your showerhead for the labeled flow rate (gpm) and consider replacing it with a WaterSense certified showerhead that guarantees performance at 2.0 gpm or less.

Clothes Washers – Wash only full loads and replace clothes washers that are more than 10 years old with new Energy Star certified washers to reduce water use from 23 to 40 gallons per load to 13 gallons per load and to cut energy use by 25%. For more information, go to https://www.energystar.gov/. NHsaves.com offers a $30 rebate for energy efficient washing machines. Rebate forms are also often available with the retailer.

Toilets – Fix running toilets to eliminate hundreds of gallons a day of wasted water. To test your toilet for a leak, place 15 drops of food coloring in the water tank of the toilet and wait 15 minutes to see if the color appears in the toilet bowl. If the color appears in the bowl, a common cause is the toilet flapper, which can be replaced with little effort or cost.

Toilets older than 1994 may use anywhere from 3.5 gallons per flush (gpf) to 7 gpf. Replace older toilets with WaterSense certified toilets (1.28 gpf) to save hundreds of gallons a week.

*WaterSense certified showerheads, toilets, and sink aerators have been tested for performance and are guaranteed to use 20% less water than today’s standard products. Look for the WaterSense label on the packaging at your local home improvement retailer or in the product information online. For more information about the products, go to https://www3.epa.gov/watersense/ and click on ‘Products.’

Brandon Kernen, a hydrogeologist in the Drinking Water Source Protection Program at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, can be reach by email at Brandon.Kernen@des.nh.gov or by phone at 603.271.0660.