August 21, 2018
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Maine’s third summer of drought conditions could start to affect wells in the state

Anthony Brino | Star-Herald
Anthony Brino | Star-Herald
Gravel bars are evident on the Aroostook River near the mouth of the Presque Isle Stream on July 11. The Aroostook River feeds gravel aquifers that supply drinking water to almost 6,000 people, and as of July, the river's flow is less than half of the average for this time of year.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff
Updated:

At Maple Knoll Farm in Solon, they’ve been keeping a close eye on their well as conditions remain dry or abnormally dry over much of Maine this summer.

The 10-foot-deep old-style dug well supplies water for the farm’s 25 goats, three cows and gardens.

“We’ve been monitoring it,” farm owner Michelle Schrader said. “It hasn’t gotten worrisome low.”

But three years of dry summers have not done any favors for Maine’s groundwater supply, according to a state water expert.

“People are starting to run out of water,” said Ryan Gordon, hydrogeologist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “It’s going to affect more people as drought [conditions] for the third summer in a row cover a lot of the state.”

Dry conditions

According to the United States Drought Monitor, much of northern, coastal and western Maine are experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Southern Maine is in a moderate drought.

Forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate online site show conditions worsening in southern Maine and remaining unchanged for the rest of the state with lack of meaningful precipitation.

“The long term effect is going to be on the groundwater,” Gordon said. “That is one of the slowest places where water is replaced.”

Gordon said his office does not keep a count of private wells that have or are drying up, but said he is getting one or two calls a day from people concerned over the possibility.

“I got a call this morning from a woman saying her neighbor near Sheepscot River had a well that had gone dry,” Gordon said. “A lot of time people don’t know a lot about their wells, so if there is a problem, they don’t know what to do.”

Information including well depth, type and age of the well can all be valuable when it comes to a home or farm water supply, he said. Gordon’s office with the Maine Geological Survey, maintains a database going back to the 1990s with information on individual private wells.

“It’s not a complete list,” Gordon said. “We rely on the well drillers to report to us, but for a lot of homes we have the depth of their well and who did the drilling.”

Some wells at risk

Homes with shallow, dug wells are often the ones to first experience issues under dry conditions, he said. A “dug well” is one that could have been actually dug by hand if it’s an old well, or by machinery if it’s more recent construction.

Either way, a dug well often goes down around 15 feet or until it is below the groundwater table. The well is then lined with stones, brick or other materials and the water pumped to the dwelling.

“These tend to be wider and more shallow than a drilled well,” Gordon said. “They may only have three feet of water in that well, and if the groundwater table drops, you are out of water.”

Drilled wells, on the other hand, are much narrower and can be hundreds of feet deep, but still rely on the moisture stored in the groundwater tables.

Drilled or dug, Gordon recommends keeping an eye on water levels and pressure as this dry summer continues.

“People could get air bubbles or see sediment in their water coming out of the tap,” Gordon said. “If you see a change of color, that means your water levels are close to bottom [and] bubbles could indicate low water pressure from low levels.”

Conservation

Gordon recommends people with dug wells conserve water usage during the dry spell and space water usage throughout the day.

“If you are seeing those bubbles in the line, it can recover in a matter of hours,” he said. “Wells fill slowly but can fill at a rate of one gallon per minute, and that is enough if you spread your water usage out over the day.”

What is not a good plan, Gordon said, is hauling in water from an outside source to replenish a low or dry shallow well.

“That water is just going to drain away when you dump it in,” he said. “And it’s also a really good way to contaminate your well.”

Most town water supplies doing OK

There is good news for customers on city or municipal water systems, Gordon said, as those sources seem to be holding up statewide.

In Bangor, according to Dina Page, city water quality manager, the supply from Floods Pond is in no danger and is in fact more than 2 inches higher than it was last year at this time.

“We are always closely monitoring it,” Page said. “We have never over-used it.”

The pond can safely yield 8.3 million gallons of water a day to supply Bangor, Hamden, parts of Clifton and Eddington, and two businesses in Veazie.

With all of that, the average use is 4.4 million gallons a day.

“We are in no danger of running out,” Page said.

It’s the same up north in Caribou where Hugh Kirkpatrick, general manager of the municipality’s utility district, said the town’s supply remains at safe levels, despite concerns in neighboring Presque Isle where low levels on the Aroostook River are prompting discussions of enforced conservation.

“Our water supply levels are set further back from the river than in Presque Isle,” Kirkpatrick said. “So our supply is not as dependent on the surface water of the river.”

Looking ahead, Gordon is not seeing any breaks in the dry conditions.

“From what I hear, we are in a dry weather period,” he said. “But there is no real crystal ball to see when it will change.”

At Maple Knoll Farm, Schrader is cautiously optimistic.

“The [well] has never gone dry since I’ve been here,” she said. “It’s not super deep, but our property is fairly soggy.”

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Correction: A previous story inaccurately stated a pond could yield 8.3 gallons of water a day.


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