Residents in Grafton County Say Town to Blame for Wells Running Dry

  • Lisa Iovino, of Warren, N.H., uses water she gathered from a spring about a half-hour away to wash dishes at the home she shares with her mother, son and daughter-in-law. The dug well in their basement ran dry around Christmastime, about a month after the water pressure in their system dropped. In Nov. 2017, the Baker River was dredged by a contractor hired by the town. Iovino's mother Ramona Thurston is dipping into her retirement savings to pay for a new well soon, which will cost at least $6,500 to install. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Photographed on Jan. 27, 2018, over a half-dozen homeowners in Warren, N.H., have been without water for 1-2 months after a stretch of the Baker River near their homes was dredged. They believe the water table dropped, ran their dug wells dry and are looking for answers from town, state and federal officials. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • During an interview at her home on Jan. 27, 2018, Jody O'Callaghan, of Warren, N.H., reviews her notes as she tries to hold the town accountable for over a half-dozen failed wells in homes near the Baker River. The river was dredged in November and residents believe their dug wells ran dry after the water table fell. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Speaking during an interview on Jan. 27, 2018, Mike O'Neil, of Warren, N.H., said an inspector gave his dug well a clean bill of health before he bought his home in Nov. 2017. The well failed a few weeks after he moved in, after the Baker River was dredged by a contractor hired by the town. About a half-dozen residents had their wells fail and are looking for answers and financial compensation as many have been without water since Thanksgiving. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2018

Warren, N.H. — After months without running water at home, Jody O’Callaghan was desperate enough to try just about anything.

One recent night, the 66-year-old studio artist went outside in her robe, trudged into her yard and started scooping up handfuls of snow. Then, shivering, she took an icy bath.

“When I came in, I felt like I had just been to a spa,” she said in an interview at home Saturday. “My whole body was tingling.”

She and as many as nine other families have been without water since around Thanksgiving, when town contractors dredged the nearby Baker River.

Despite the levity of her snow bath anecdote, O’Callaghan said, the past few months have been a trial.

“It’s depressing,” she said. “You really can’t think straight or do anything for yourself. It’s a full-time job.”

The workers widened and shored up the river’s banks in order to avoid the kind of catastrophe the town witnessed during July’s rainstorms and a devastating October follow-up that saw an entire house float down the waterway.

But in the process, residents said, Warren officials altered the water table enough to dry out their wells — a quiet crisis that has gone months without a solution. For months, the residents have been seeking aid from town, state and federal officials to dig new wells. But help has been slow to come.

In an interview Friday, Warren Selectman Charles Chandler left open the possibility that the dredging had contributed to the problem, but ultimately deflected responsibility on the town’s part.

“I’m not sure that we have acknowledged that,” he said. “It seems entirely logical that it could be a reason.”

The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services issued Warren a permit for to dredge in mid-November, and the town engaged a local contractor to carry it out for about $150,000.

After word of dried-out wells reached the Selectboard, town officials spoke to their insurance carrier, Chandler said.

“It was pretty clear that because what we were doing was protecting municipal infrastructure we didn’t have any technical liability,” he said, referring to two bridges the dredging was meant to protect from future floods.

Nevertheless, some of the waterless residents feel the town could have done more.

O’Callaghan said it was “disgraceful” that the town had not taken responsibility while residents struggled.

Little House on the Prairie had it good,” she said. “Ma Ingalls had a hand pump.”

Mike O’Neil, who lives a few doors down from O’Callaghan, moved to town in November after many years in nearby Rumney — right around the time that town contractors started work on the river.

“We’ve been told, ‘It’s your problem, not ours,’ ” O’Neil said.

“Right after I bought the house, they were coming up the road with all this equipment,” he said.

Not long afterward, his faucets started sputtering, and then, even after some repair work, stopped completely. O’Neil, who each day commutes two hours, round trip, to his job at Pike Industries in West Lebanon, was spread thin by this new headache.

“I had just set up my house, just moved in, and I had no water,” he said.

O’Neil and a few other residents have arranged for well diggers to arrive early this week, and his may be the first water source to be installed. Despite the possibility of aid from the New Hampshire Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, homeowners are fronting most of the bills themselves, with costs rising into the multiple thousands of dollars.

O’Callaghan was unable to make do with a new gravel-bottomed dug well, and must have a deeper artesian well installed at extra cost — a total of about $14,000 versus a yearly income that she said is less than $10,000.

Ramona Thurston, 75, lives around the corner from O’Callaghan on Route 25.

Having spent weeks boiling water, emptying it into toilet tanks to flush and driving to Plymouth or Pike to draw it from springs, she couldn’t wait any longer. One recent day, she emptied a retirement savings account to pay for a new well.

“I’d had it,” she said.

Chandler, the selectman, acknowledged the residents’ difficulties multiple times during Friday’s conversation.

“People, in fact, are suffering,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

But with limited resources, he said, the town must focus on its infrastructure. Town officials can’t agree to dig new wells unless they ask permission in a townwide vote, he added.

“We aren’t able to directly pitch in with the wells,” he said. “We don’t have the money to do that. We don’t have the authority to do that. ... If someone wants us to do that, they should put an article on the warrant for Town Meeting.”

Chandler said it was “abundantly clear” that the town bore no legal liability for the dried-up wells. Besides, he said, Warren’s town government is still licking its wounds from costs incurred by the summer and fall storms, which together cost the town well over a million dollars, compared to the annual budget of about $800,000.

“What we did was a Band-Aid,” he said.

The projected cost to alter the Baker River in a way that will offer more permanent protection to homes and infrastructure is between $5 million and $8 million, Chandler said.

“We don’t have that,” he said. “We’re a tiny town of 890 people. You do what you’re able to do.”

Chandler also noted that the town has made money available for no-interest loans to the residents — an offer no one has taken up yet, he said.

O’Callaghan, for her part, said she found the offer of a loan, rather than a grant, like a “slap in the face.”

Meanwhile, the area’s state senator, Bob Giuda, is working on solutions in the Legislature and elsewhere.

Earlier this month, he launched a crowdfunding initiative for the families on the website GoFundMe that aims to raise about $4,000 for each of the 10 families he says are involved. As of late Saturday afternoon, the initiative had gathered $6,809 toward its $40,000 goal.

Giuda, a Republican who lives in Warren, says he is also introducing a bill that would authorize the governor and Executive Council to release state funds for emergency relief in similar situations.

“We as a state, I think, can do a better job, and that’s the genesis of my bill,” he said on Friday. “Not being able to generate relief is something we need to address.”

Giuda also encouraged people to donate to the GoFundMe, which can be accessed at https://www.gofundme.com/nh-families-still-without-water.

“I have faith in the people of New Hampshire and our neighbors and our friends and our families,” he said. “If a lot of people give us a little, it’ll give us what we need.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.