Despite the rain, drought concerns linger: ‘We’re not out of the woods yet’

By: - July 26, 2021 6:15 am
A flooded hiking trail in the woods

July’s wet weather flooded this trail in the Upper Valley. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In July came the rain.

Heavy, unrelenting rain fell for nearly three weeks – with some parts of the state getting inundated by over 7 inches of it.

For some it was a relief after the unusually dry spring, for others the rain brought annoyance or concern due to flooding that hit parts of southern New Hampshire.

But officials say the state isn’t in the clear yet when it comes to the deep drought of the past year.

“The thing about droughts is they’re a slow-moving disaster,” said Ted Diers, who works on watershed management at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. Diers coordinates the drought management team.

The current dry conditions the state is experiencing began with a deep drought in 2020 that never really ended. And just as the drought took years to arrive, it will take time on the way out. In spite of significant rainfall this month, Diers said he won’t be declaring victory until October or November. In some parts of the state, there was over a foot of water precipitation deficit between this year and last year.

“Be thankful for the rain,” Diers said, “but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

A weekly drought report released on Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor showed that parts of two counties are in moderate drought: most of Coos and a slim northwestern corner of Grafton. A section of northeast Coos County is in severe drought – which can cause harm to wildlife. Trees become brittle and start getting more susceptible to insects. Poor water quality is also common in areas experiencing severe drought.

Parts of five counties are experiencing abnormally dry conditions, while there are no drought conditions across much of the southern part of the state.

A map showing drought conditions in New Hampshire

Across the United States, about 52 percent of the country was abnormally dry over the past week. Nearly 20 percent of the country was in moderate drought, and 3 percent in severe drought.

The last time there was a multi-year drought in the region was in the 1960s, but there were very dry periods in 2001 and 2002 and then again in 2016 and 2017.

Climate scientists have been clear that extreme weather events, like the tropical storms that bring heavy rain, are going to become more common because of climate change. Drought and dry conditions across the country are fueling the wildfires burning across 13 Western states, with smoke spreading like a veil across the country last week. Smoke, drought, and flooding are all symptoms of a changing climate, and scientists have found that these symptoms worsen as temperatures rise.

“This is exactly what has been predicted by all of the climate models,” Diers said. Rain will be intense, and dry conditions will be prolonged, he said. Those conditions have the state encouraging residents to think about drought resilience – ensuring that a well is in good condition, diversifying their water supply, and thinking twice about ground and surface water before developing a golf course or irrigation-dependent agriculture. Outdoor use of water, like watering lawns, is actually the main residential suck of water. Diers said residents should accept that their lawns aren’t going to be glittering green during a drought. 

But while the intense rain is enough to fill rivers and streams, water levels below ground are still cause for concern. Diers said the state’s monitoring system has shown that, in spite of nearly three weeks of rain, groundwater levels are actually still going down in some places.

That’s because when the soil is very dry, a lot of the water is intercepted by trees and other plants and evaporates before it ever has a chance to replenish the groundwater levels. Low groundwater levels contribute to wells running dry.  

“We can’t give the all clear until we start to see the recovery of the groundwater resources,” Diers said. And he doesn’t expect that to happen until the fall.

“After the plants shut down, after, you know, after all the trees go to sleep, then that’s when we really get the recharge of our groundwater,” he said.

Precipitation in September, October, and November will determine where groundwater levels land. Forecasts show normal precipitation and above average temperatures, but there isn’t much confidence in predictions beyond three weeks out.  

When wells run dry

Drought is felt acutely when wells run dry. And that’s something residents of the state have been grappling with during this current drought. So far, the Department of Environmental Services estimates that about 110 people have applied for state funding that’s set aside to help low-income residents replace wells that run dry.

Steve Roy, a section manager for drinking water and groundwater at the Department of Environmental Services, said the problem is more common in shallow, dug wells. Wells that are less than 14 feet deep are more likely to be impacted by a drought.

“In an area where you normally have a water table that’s 10 or 12 feet down, in a dry season with very little snow melt that water table will drop three, four feet,” Roy said. “Those wells start to experience some real limits very quickly.”

About half the state’s residents get their water from wells, and Roy estimates that about 20 percent of wells in the state are shallow, dug wells. The remainder are drilled wells, which tend to be about 450 feet deep and more resistant to drought conditions.

The state doesn’t track how many people’s wells are impacted by drought, but they do have a proxy for understanding the scope of the problem since they receive construction reports on replacement wells that are being built.

“If we get a lot of replacement wells, we know something’s going on,” Roy said. He’s the one who answers the phone when someone calls the department to discuss well troubles, so he has an anecdotal gauge on the problem, too.

He noticed that calls were high last year and through this year, but that they slowed down dramatically around the Fourth of July weekend, when it started raining. 

A small state with wild variation

Conditions vary dramatically throughout the state. Last weekend, river gauge measurements were at a record low in the North Country, which is still in drought. Measurements taken that same day, in the southern part of the state, were the highest ever recorded for that particular day when compared to past years. The difference is because of the state’s complex geology, terrain, and varying elevations, and climate factors like the strong jet stream.

But the heavy rains did bring another disaster that moves a lot faster than drought: flooding. The two weather events aren’t unrelated. Soil that’s extremely dry isn’t able to absorb water, which instead runs off, contributing to flooding.

Farmers and lawmakers have pointed to the role soil health can play in a changing climate. For one, healthy soil can actually store carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere – one of the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

Healthy soil practices, such as cover cropping or no-till, work by keeping roots in the soil to prevent runoff of soil into waterways. And healthy soil can both better absorb water and retain it for longer than soil that’s been stripped of its nutrients. More nutrient-dense soil also grows food that is richer in nutrients.

House Bill 199 was passed in the last legislative session to add soil health to the state soil conservation plan “to promote adaptation to changes in climate and environment.” The bill is still awaiting the governor’s signature, which would make it law.

Rep. Peter Bixby, a Dover Democrat, was the prime sponsor of the legislation. He said the bill will help soil conservation districts more successfully apply for grants to fund soil and climate change adaptation.

Bixby started working on the legislation in 2019, after he was approached by Northeast Organic Farming Association, the New England branch of the American Farmers Union, and a representative from Stonyfield Farm, as well as people who were interested in doing something to promote healthy soil in the state.

“There’s sort of a dual thing, which is there’s the soil health, and there’s the runoff into Great Bay, which is a significant environmental issue and also has large financial implications for the seacoast,” Bixby said.

Addressing soil health is one way of reducing runoff.

Bixby pointed to neighboring Vermont, which has done more to promote soil health by providing incentives for farmers to take action. He knew that doing something comparable would be impossible in New Hampshire. But adding soil health to the conservation plan didn’t cost the state anything.

While healthy soil won’t solve flooding or drought, it’s one measure that could increase the state’s climate resiliency in the future.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.