As we all crunch across our lawns in yet another dry summer, we should spare a moment’s thought for what’s happening underground. It might be changing and that might not be good.
“It seems we are seeing a shift in baseline conditions of our monitoring wells,” is how the situation is described by Michael Howley, a geoscience program specialist with the state Department of Environmental Services, in suitably cautious scientific prose.
What he means is that levels of below-ground water found in the state’s 31 monitoring wells show signs of deviating from our long-held expectations, due to changes in the amounts of rain and snow we get as well as increasing temperatures, which increases evaporation. (The state has wells in 23 locations, many dating to the 1960s and a shallow dug well in New London that dates to 1947, so the data is pretty decent.)
That’s potentially worrisome because we built our infrastructure, economy and lifestyles on the expectation of how much water will exist in which places at which times. If that changes due to the extremes brought by climate change, both wet and dry, then we’ve got problems.
Admittedly, New England’s water problems are minor compared to many parts of the world. (I wonder how many people who fled our winters to live in Phoenix are having second thoughts?) But they are still problems.
Consider the upper Connecticut River Valley.
The state’s monitoring wells above Claremont are showing the lowest levels of any part of the state. The Lisbon well level, for example, is lower than normal at this time of year more than nine times out of 10.
Yet rainfall in that area hasn’t been too bad compared to the rest of the state over the past month, or all season, or since the start of the year. So what’s the problem?
Mostly shortage of melting snow, which is an important source of aquifer recharge in the North Country.
Although recent rains are OK, precipitation in that area has been just 50% to 75% of the long-term average over the past 365 days, Howley said. Since it takes months for water to percolate down to aquifers, “We’re seeing the long-term effects of that now.”
In layperson terms, there are two different types of drought: Above ground and below ground. Recent precipitation affects what you and I see, but the water we drink depends on much longer-term measurements of rain and snow.
Climate change, as meteorologists have predicted for years, may not have a big effect on the total amount of annual precipitation in our area but it’s changing how and when it arrives. Mostly, we’re seeing bigger bursts that run off quickly as well as longer dry spells like right now that border on being “flash droughts.” Combined with erratic winters that reduce the accumulated snowpack, which many rural areas need in spring and summer, these could spell trouble for our water supply.
If you depend on a private well – as do more than half of New Hampshire homes, including virtually everybody in rural areas (also me) – the idea that underground water supplies might change in unpredictable ways is alarming.
The intelligent thing to do is for New Hampshire to assume the worst and prepare for it. We should upgrade building codes to require more efficient appliances, encourage factories and companies to reduce use by raising the cost and/or providing incentives, change laws so that utilities and water districts can clamp down on outdoor watering when necessary – although it might hurt our freedom to gaze on flat green spaces outside our homes and businesses – and spend money (ugh) to repair and upgrade water and wastewater systems.
All of those require regulation or government action, anathema to the folks who think like the Free State Project and have infected our politics, so I wouldn’t count on them happening any time soon. But as I said, they would be intelligent things to do.
If you want to keep an eye on groundwater levels in the state, the New Hampshire Geological Survey has created a web app for viewing data from the NH Groundwater Level Monitoring Network. It’s available through the NHDESGeodata Portal at nhdes.maps.arcgis.com or directly at https://bit.ly/3QbtJ