Newport — Last summer, Ben Nelson’s raspberries were thirsty, and his hay crop was down. This year, he’s not sure what to expect — but he wants to avoid a repeat of what last season’s drought did to his farm, if possible.
The dug wells at Beaver Pond Farm, off John Stark Highway, aka Route 11, in Newport, kept running dry, making him think about water conservation practices.
“Things are dry for this time of year,” said Nelson. “We’re fine now, but we just have to be real careful about water use going forward.”
Although the U.S. Drought Monitor reports that drought conditions are improving in the Upper Valley since the summer and fall, the latest report from this week indicates that drought conditions in parts of the Twin States are not yet over. Southern Grafton County reported “moderate drought” conditions, while the central part of the county remains “abnormally dry.” Meanwhile, much of Sullivan County continues to be in a “severe drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In Vermont, southeast Windsor County reported a severe drought, with most of the rest of the county and Orange County reporting either a moderate drought or abnormally dry weather.
This is despite the warm and fairly wet weather so far this month, as well as overall normal streamflow in Upper Valley rivers compared to previous years at this time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
As of Thursday, Lebanon has received 9.2 inches of precipitation this year, just shy of the 9.8 inches expected in a normal year. And Lebanon this winter logged 75.8 inches of snowfall, close to the 79.7 inch seasonal average, according to AccuWeather.com.
But this is not necessarily enough to undo months of drought damage, said Tom Hawley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Gray, Maine.
“The issue is that we just need some good, long, soaking rains,” he said. “Rains that last for a day or two and give us three or four inches of water — without flooding us, of course.”
But aside from a few light rain events in the coming weeks, Hawley said he sees no such “soaking” rainfalls on the horizon for the Upper Valley. These light rains tend to run into storm drains and streams, or are taken up by tree roots, rather than seeping into an aquifer, he said.
The ongoing drought conditions, especially in Sullivan County, have impacted farms like Beaver Pond Farm and increased demand for artesian wells, according to local well companies. It also continues to impact the town of Newport, which enacted a mandatory water restriction on outdoor water use last October. The ban includes activities like watering lawns and gardens, washing cars and filling swimming pools.
“It’s just darn Sullivan County,” Josh Worthen, superintendent of the Newport Water and Sewer Department, said of the pockets of problems.
On Monday night, the Newport Selectboard met to discuss what to do about the ongoing conditions. They decided to continue with the restrictions “through the next couple of weeks,” with plans to re-evaluate in early May, Worthen said.
While the latest two reports from the U.S. Drought Monitor mark an improvement in drought conditions since December — when the southern part of Grafton County was in the midst of a severe drought, and the southeastern corner of New Hampshire was faring even worse with “extreme” drought — the drought conditions continue to inform the way farmers like Nelson are planning the growing season.
Nelson said Beaver Pond Farm is increasing its drip irrigation, which uses less water than traditional watering methods, on some of his crops. Nelson also plans to use more black plastic mulch, a biodegradable film that stretches over the soil and helps it trap moisture, he said.
Last summer, the dug wells at Beaver Pond Farm went dry “again and again and again,” Nelson said, though he noted that his farm “wasn’t hit quite as bad as folks in the more southern part of the state. We were down, but not devastated.”
Steven Schmidt, executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Orford, said the farms he monitors have run into similar water shortage issues in their wells, with these problems occurring almost entirely in southern Grafton County.
He cited one farm that has had to rotate between two dug wells — which are shallow — and one deep-drilled well when their dug wells run out of water, he said via email.
“By using all three water sources alternately throughout the day, the farm has been able to get by,” he wrote, adding that it takes several hours for each water source to replenish.
Deep-drilled wells, also called artesian wells, are becoming increasingly popular among private well-owners, who find themselves running dry. Barbara Lucas, who works at the family-operated Robert Lucas and Sons Well Drilling in Newport, said that the company doubled its normal amount of well work last year in response to the drought, and continues to keep busy installing artesian wells this season as the impacts of the drought continue.
Dug wells, which her son Todd Lucas said are usually between 10 and 15 feet deep, rely on precipitation to replenish supplies of surface water. Artesian wells are made by drilling deep into the bedrock “until you hit a fracture that produces enough water from the vein,” he said, adding that this typically happens between 200 and 400 feet below the surface, though some wells run as deep as 700 feet.
Ken White, the manager at Valley Artesian Wells in Ascutney, said his company has also been receiving a high number of requests to switch to artesian wells, even after the peak of the drought. White said that this time of year is usually slow for his company, since snowmelt in March and April contributes to surface water levels. But he anticipates that the phone calls from homeowners needing to dig deeper will continue to flood in over the coming months, since the effects of drought “tend to be cumulative,” he said.
“Even if it started raining tomorrow and didn’t stop, it would take some time for the surface waters to get back to where they should be,” he said. “In the meantime, water’s a necessity. Everybody needs to drink.”
Worthen echoed this logic, adding that it’s easy to misperceive rain events as signifying the end of a drought period. “People see the water coming down with their eyes, but they don’t see what’s happening under the surface, which is that it’s still dry,” he said.
But even though deeper groundwater in aquifers may still be at risk of depletion, surface water supplies — and the shallow wells they often feed — may be on the road to recovery, Schmidt said in a phone interview.
He added that this may be why not every farmer is feeling as cautious about the growing season as they did last year. Several farmers in northern Sullivan County were surprised to learn that the drought was not technically over.
“I didn’t know about any drought this year,” said Paul Franklin, of Riverview Farm in Plainfield off Route 12A. “I guess if they say there’s a drought there is one, but all I know is what I see from a farmer’s eye. And that’s that surface water seems back to where it should be.”
Franklin noted that Riverview Farm pumps much of its water from nearby ponds and the Connecticut River, and that many farms farther south in Sullivan County are not as fortunate. But Bob Frizzell, who runs Peachblow Farm in Charlestown, where the drought is considered severe, said he is skeptical about the threat to crops.
“We’ll see what comes,” he said. “But with all the rain we’ve had, I don’t see how they’re calling it a drought now. All the experts like to scare us.”
In the meantime, Worthen said Newport’s water restriction remains “tough on the community.”
“Everybody wants to do their cleaning and landscaping and fix their seedlings from when the plow guy messed up their lawns — heck, I do too,” he said. “So let’s all hope for some long, soaking rains sometime soon.”
EmmaJean Holley can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.