Dealing with drought

  • Dublin Fire Chief Tom Vanderbilt checks in on a dry hydrant along Dublin Lake on Tuesday. The department has discontinued use of several dry hydrants in recent years as the small bodies of water they drew supply from dried up. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Dublin Fire Chief Tom Vanderbilt checks in on a dry hydrant along Dublin Lake on Tuesday. The department has discontinued use of several dry hydrants in recent years as the small bodies of water they drew supply from dried up. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • A new gasoline powered transfer pump at The Farm at Wolf Pine Hollow in Hancock. Farm owners Ariane and Tom Ice were forced to purchase the pump, which runs throughout the day, after one of their irrigation ponds dried up earlier this summer. Courtesy Photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/27/2022 2:56:22 PM

To understand the causes and effects of the current drought in New Hampshire, one very important thing to understand is snow. That’s because the state’s snowpack – compressed snow on the ground in winter months – serves as a large source for replenishing the state’s aquifers and groundwater supplies.

According to last week’s U.S. Drought Monitor Report, the majority of New Hampshire was experiencing moderate drought conditions with severe drought existing in a swath along the southeastern border with Massachusetts. 

University of New Hampshire Geography Professor and State Climatologist Mary Stampone said there’s no magic number for how much precipitation is needed to relieve current drought conditions, but she pointed to snowfall as an important source of precipitation that is growing more and more variable due to climate change.

“One thing that climate change does is that it exacerbates the extremes,” says Stampone. “We see a lot of variability from year to year, and overall we’re seeing a steady decrease in the length of the snow-cover season.”

Stampone, who consults and advices the drought management team which makes policy decisions for the state, says having a lot of snow doesn’t help if it melts by mid February-as the trend has been in recent years-rather than the end of March or April. 

 “We’re seeing a snowpack happening later in the fall and melting earlier in the spring,” she said, adding that there are also more mid-winter thaws happening during the season which leads to more surface runoff because of the frozen ground, and a decrease in snowpack thickness. 

The consequences of drought

Stampone says the snowpack that ends up in the state’s groundwater supplies is critical going into growing season because it serves to offset the effects of summer heat. 

During the growing season, which occurs during the summer months when temperatures rise, evaporation of water in the soil occurs and this can be the cause of stress for vegetation.

The National Drought Mitigation Center’s Vegetation Drought Response Index is a geospatial model that depicts drought stress on vegetation across the United States. In New Hampshire, the current model shows nearly half of the state’s vegetation near normal on July 24, with 33 percent in pre-drought conditions, 11.67 moderate conditions and 2.47 percent experiencing severe drought effects. 

The effects of drought are being felt this summer for farmers Ariane and Tom Ice, who own The Farm at Wolf Pine Hollow in Hancock.

“It has been all about the water this year,” said Ariane Ice, referring to the couple’s investment in new equipment as well as labor costs associated with maintaining their farm during this summer’s drought. 

The farm, in its second year of operation, grows a variety of flowers, berries, vegetables, as well as apples and pumpkins. Ice says most of the plants on the farm are only one year old and still being established. When one of the ponds used for irrigation recently went dry because it was being used full time, Ice said she and her husband were forced to invest in a new gasoline powered transfer pump that now runs throughout the day. 

“The economic hit has been devastating,” Ice said, referring to the cost of unexpected purchases to maintain the farm’s crops, including the cost of gasoline, hoses, irrigation wheels and a new pump. “From our standpoint we’re a new farm trying to establish everything. We’re lucky we have college interns this summer but they’re spending 60 percent on irrigation and that takes  away other things we’d like to be focused on.”

Drought can affect water levels of ponds and streams used by firefighters

For firefighters in towns like Peterborough that have municipal water supplies, fire trucks can pull up to hydrants that are on a computer program allowing dispatchers to locate hydrants. 

“In Dublin, we don’t have that luxury,” said Dublin Fire Chief Tom Vanderbilt. “We have dry hydrants which are basically a pipe into a water source, and we have to hook the truck up and pump out of static water sources.”

The advantage of having dry hydrants is that in the winter, his department and others like it can hook onto those hydrants and not have to cut their way through ice and snow, Vanderbilt said.

So far this year Vanderbilt said his department hasn’t seen anything out of the norm in terms of fires. 

“We’re blessed not to have the issues they’re having out west,” he said.  “California used to see most of its wildfires in the summer and  now it’s 365 days a year. We’re seeing the effects of climate change there, and seeing it here as well. It’s not normally in the 90s as long as it has been.”

Peterborough Fire Chief Ed Walker said his department and others in nearby towns are impacted by drought in two ways: increased wildfire risk and access to fire hydrants.

“As the ground dries out, fires move a lot faster,” he said, adding that when there is a short period of drought, it’s not as big of a problem because it stays on the surface. “When you get into long droughts, you get dryness down into the various layers of duff which includes decomposed material, like leaves and pine needles. In really dry weather, fire burns down and it becomes difficult to extinguish.” 

This was the case in Greenfield on July 4 when a fire scorched nearly three acres of land, requiring a fire response from various departments as well as state forestry deputies and forest rangers. 

Fire Chief in Francestown, Larry Kullgren, who is also a call firefighter for the N.H. Division of Forest and Lands, serving as a special deputy, said that fire began burning into the duff and took two days to fully extinguish.

“Local resources were initially called and on day two the New Hampshire Division of Forest and Land sent special deputies and several forest rangers,” he said, adding that at this time the ponds and major streams that his department and others draw from are still adequate sources of water.  

And while wildfires in New England remain uncommon, Kullgren said the loss of trees due to the Emerald Ash Bore and other insects could pose a problem in the future. 

“Because of population density in New Hampshire, fires are typically detected at small size and we’re able to get people there to keep it within a reasonable size fire,” he said, adding that some communities have had fires burning between 5 to 10 acres.

Walker said another reason for the lack of massive wildfires in New England is because the region doesn’t typically experience long periods of exceptionally dry weather and that the humidity keeps vegetation that’s alive from drying out. 

When it comes to fighting fires, he said Peterborough is fortunate to have municipal water systems –unlike smaller towns like Dublin and Francestown – with access to fire hydrants.

“In areas that don’t have municipal water systems, they’re relying on static water sources,” he said.  “If you drive around you’ll notice the water levels in some ponds, and streams, and lakes are really really low. That can make it difficult for fire departments to access water for fire fighting.” 

Walker said the town of Peterborough is currently working with Jaffrey to establish a new well near the town of Sharon at Cold Stone Springs.

“Currently, Peterborough’s wells all use the same aquifer. This new well will be using a totally separate aquifer,” he said, explaining that this new well will do two things. “It will increase the town’s capacity to deliver water and create redundancy which could aid in times of drought.

“The town’s water system dead ends on 202 South just past New Hampshire Ball Bearing,” he said. “The new well will be connecting in there and create redundancy with the system itself. This will allow 202 south to have water from two different directions.” 

As for where this season’s drought is headed, Stampone said it depends on the weather, adding that global warming and future policy decisions will play a role in how drought-related problems impact the region.

“As I always say going into a warm season, we know it’s going to get warmer and the atmosphere is going to take more water out of the soil,” Stampone said. “What we don’t know is how much precipitation we’re going to get. As output increases as summer seasons warm in response to global warming, we’re more vulnerable to these rapid onset droughts that happen after we have a dry period in our weather, and that gets exacerbated and turns into drought.” 

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