It's important for well owners to conserve water this time of year to prevent their wells from going dry. Credit: Julia Bayly

With close to half the state currently in a moderate drought and the rest abnormally dry, private drinking water wells in Maine are in trouble. According to hydrologists, now is the time to start taking steps to prevent a well from going completely dry before it’s too late.

“People having wells go dry has already begun,” said Haig Brochu, private well coordinator with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ division of environmental and community health. “And that is scary because it’s only June.”

On Friday, Brochu said he had taken several calls in the preceding days from private well owners in the state who had run out of water. He wishes he had better news for them.

“Once your well goes dry, it is probably not going to come back until the fall,” Brochu said. “Right now people really need to start thinking about conservation.”

As water tables drop around the state, Brochu said people who rely on private wells must start eliminating water use that is not absolutely necessary.

“Don’t worry about keeping the grass in your front lawn green,” he said. “If you have a vegetable garden, find an alternate source like a brook or pond for the water, but don’t run your well dry to keep your vegetables watered.”

Other than using highly technical scientific measuring equipment, there is no reliable way to tell if a well is about to go dry, Brochu said. Simply taking off the wellcap and peering down inside does not give a clear indication of how much water is left in the underground aquifer feeding that well.

Brochu said in all likelihood dry wells will not replenish until this fall because this is the time of year when whatever rain does fall tends to do so in short bursts that is monopolized by growing plants and trees.

Sudden and strong rain showers like the ones that moved through central Maine on Friday are not enough to replenish the state’s groundwater levels that supply private wells. It’s important for well owners to conserve water this time of year to prevent their wells from going dry. Credit: Julia Bayly

“Right now the ground is acting like a sponge,” he said. “There will be no true groundwater recharge until the fall when the plants go dormant and we get longer periods of soaking rain.”

Which is why conserving water is the best course of action right now.

Among the things you can do to conserve water are: take shorter and less frequent showers; if you don’t have a low volume toilet, put a plastic bottle filled with water or brick in the toilet tank to reduce the amount of water used per flush; run your dishwasher only when it’s full; look for and repair any leaks in pipes; reduce or completely eliminate water used for recreation, such as filling pools or running the sprinkler for children to run through; and when possible, have water delivered from a reputable business for non-potable use.

There are signs that indicate a well is about to run dry. These include a change of taste or smell in your water, muddy or silty looking water, faucets sputtering when you turn them on and neighbors reporting dry wells.

“Houses packed together, each with a well, is a real problem,” Brochu said. “I tell them it’s like there is one cup of water and every house is drinking from that one cup with their own straw, and once that cup is empty, that’s it.”

If your well does run dry, other than wait for nature to refill it, Brochu said people can reach out to their municipality or town to see if there is a place from which they can get potable water for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

“People do need to be careful,” he said. “When you move that water from its source to your home, make sure your container is sterilized and don’t try to hold two weeks worth of water at a time.”

Groundwater, Brochu said, lives in an environment where the cool temperatures and lack of oxygen don’t allow the growth of bacteria. Once it’s above ground, however, it can reach the ambient air temperature in 24 hours and with the available oxygen, bacteria start breeding rapidly.

“You are better off making more trips to get less water at a time,” he said.

Brochu cautions against hiring someone claiming to be able to deliver water and directly inject it into a dry well. That water may not be safe for drinking, he said, and even if it was, once injected into the well, it will flow out into the natural fractures in the aquifer.

Nor does he recommend spending the money to drill a second well into an already depleted groundwater source.

The DHHS has a list of resources and businesses that may be able to offer assistance if a well does run dry. It can be found at www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/environmental-health/dwp.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.