Dry times: Drought makes for backlog at N.H. well-drilling companies

  • Looking down the Graces’s well on their Warner property. The water level usually reaches the second ring but has fallen from this year’s drought. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Susan Grace and her husband Edward stand by their dug well near their home in Warner off of Couchtown Road. They have lived there for 37 and the well has never gone dry but they are closely monitoring their water usage. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/6/2016 7:36:26 PM

With hundreds of private wells running dry across New Hampshire’s southern tier as the drought stretches on and on, the recent experience of Susan Grace of Warner isn’t unusual. With one small difference.

“We’ve been babying our well. No laundry, G.I. showers, recycle water from the shower to flush the toilets, don’t flush every time, collect rainwater,” said Grace, who with husband, Edward, has lived on Couchtown Road for 37 years.

Despite those efforts, she said, the water level in their 10-foot-deep well was so low last weekend that the pump could no longer operate. So they called their local well company to get a replacement.

As Grace recalled her conversation with the business owner, it went like this: “I said, ‘How soon can you give me a well?’ and he said, ‘How about five weeks, mom?’ ”

Yes, “mom.” Capital Well of Dunbarton is part-owned by her son Dan Grace, but these days, demand for new wells in New Hampshire is so great that even your own mother has to get in line.

“We’ve got friends, saying, ‘Come take a shower when you need to,’ ” Susan Grace said. “We’ll get through.”

Business is so busy that the Dunbarton-based well company “just added another drill rig to our southern operation – it went out in the field Monday,” said Jonathan Swain, sales manager for Capital Well. “We get calls pretty much around the clock.”

In Northwood, Dan Tasker, co-owner of Tasker’s Well Co., paused during a job Thursday to discuss the many calls he gets from desperate homeowners.

“This drought has made it crazy,” he said. “People call, they think we’re going to get to them tomorrow, but it’s pretty hard to work them in if you’ve got a complete list.”

There’s no exact number for how many private wells have gone dry in New Hampshire in recent weeks, although it’s certainly in the hundreds. The Department of Environmental Services is gathering reports via a form on its website, reachable via the “NH Drought Information” button on the home page of NH.gov.

Across the state, more than 160 water providers, ranging from entire towns to wells that serve a few customers such as in a mobile home park, have instituted voluntary or mandatory restrictions on outdoor water usage.

New Hampshire is unusual among states in that it allows municipalities to ban all residential lawn watering, even for residences using private wells rather than the municipal water system, if a drought condition has been declared by the state or federal government, as is the case for most of the state. The law passed in 2007 does not allow municipalities to place bans or water restrictions on businesses.

Brandon Kernen, who helps oversee drought management for the Department of Environmental Services, said that about 20 percent of reports of dry wells have involved drilled wells. Those are wells at least a few hundred feet deep that gather water moving through small cracks in the bedrock, as compared with shallower “dug wells,” mostly less than 40 feet deep, that gather water moving through dirt or sand.

Dug wells are much more prone to running dry because they depend on water near the surface.

“It’s surprising how many people call up and there’re still on dug wells,” said Dan Tasker. He and his brother Jeff run the company started 70 years ago by their father, Elmer. “I finished a job yesterday in Madbury. He said they’ve lived there for 50 years with a dug well. . . . If it works and the water’s good, why replace it?”

One thing owners of dug wells that have gone dry shouldn’t do is buy water and pour it into wells for storage, because it is almost certain to leak out into the surrounding dry ground.

“The water table is so low – they’d better do their laundry in the next 30 minutes, because it will just get sucked out,” said Swain of Capital Well.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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