STANDISH — By the time Bob Boynton realized his mistake, it was too late.

For 25 years, the 14-foot-deep dug well at his Standish home had been reliable. So reliable, in fact, that he continued watering his lawn this summer even as southern Maine sank deeper into a drought. Then the sprinkler started shooting air, not water. His family limited their showers and rationed water when they could.

It wasn’t enough. A week ago, the well ran dry. Boynton had to run a garden hose from his neighbor’s house for water just to flush the toilet. He finally called a well driller to get a new well put in.

“I always thought it was going to last forever,” Boynton said, looking at the concrete casing of his old well. “It really caught me off guard.”

As the worst drought in more than a decade has gone from severe to extreme in southern Maine, many families who rely on shallow private wells have been forced to change the way they live. That might mean flushing only when necessary, buying water or hauling it from public sources, eating out instead of cooking, or skipping showers.

And some have had to take more drastic action. Well drillers are inundated with calls from people who want dry wells drilled deeper or those who fear that their water source is about to dry up. Many homeowners have even turned to private companies to deliver tanks full of drinking water to refill their wells, at least temporarily.


Warren Hood, who owns the Splash water company in Turner, said people started calling him to fill wells in June, the first time in 30 years that people needed water that early in the summer. His company handles eight to 10 calls a day from households without water.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” Hood said. “People are desperate.”

Most of New England is in the depths of the worst drought in more than a decade. A wide swath from Massachusetts through southern New Hampshire and into southernmost Maine is experiencing an extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The rest of York County and all of Cumberland, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties are in a severe drought, according to the National Drought Monitor Program.

Rainfall in York County since Oct. 1, 2015, has totaled 33 inches, about 16.4 inches below normal, according to the National Weather Service. Sagadahoc and Cumberland counties also have seen about 33 inches of total rainfall, which is 14.5 inches below normal in that part of the state.

The surface levels of lakes, ponds and streams are well below normal, and groundwater levels in Sanford and Poland were the lowest on record in July and August, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The rain that fell Tuesday, and more forecast for later this week, might give some relief, but it won’t make up for the dry summer or recharge aquifers. Maine’s drought is expected to persist through December, according to the national climate prediction center.


Justin Arnott, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, said even significant rainfall this fall probably would not restore water supplies. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t erase the dryness, it just keeps it from getting worse,” he said.

Many Mainers have not been inconvenienced by the drought beyond brown lawns and thirsty vegetable gardens. With a couple exceptions, Maine’s public water supplies have held up with no limits on water usage. And, although 44 percent of the state’s population uses private wells, the vast majority are drilled deep into the bedrock and don’t typically dry out even during drought periods, said state geologist Robert Marvinney.

However, for the thousands of Maine households relying on shallow wells that are sometimes dug as little as 15 feet into sand and gravel, the drought is more than an inconvenience. Those wells usually go below the water table and get recharged with groundwater, but are much more vulnerable during dry weather. Even in a normal summer, some people with dug wells have to watch their water use. Location plays a huge role. A well on the crest of a hill might dry out faster than one near a stream bed, Marvinney said.

In 2011, the state estimated that dug wells made up 10 percent to 15 percent of private wells in the state. A rough estimate is that 4 percent to 6 percent of the state’s population, about 53,200 people, rely on dug wells, the Maine Geological Survey said.

During the last severe drought from 1999 to 2002, 17,000 private wells went dry and 35 public water systems were severely affected, according to state reports. Many dug wells were replaced with drilled wells during that drought, Marvinney said.

Nina Fuller welcomes the brief rain Tuesday morning near a pond at her farm in Hollis. When Fuller's well ran dry last week, she panicked, not knowing how she would get water to her horses, sheep and goats. Work on her well has given her temporary relief, and she's been prioritizing resources for her animals.

Nina Fuller welcomes the brief rain Tuesday morning near a pond at her farm in Hollis. When Fuller’s well ran dry last week, she panicked, not knowing how she would get water to her horses, sheep and goats. Work on her well has given her temporary relief, and she’s been prioritizing resources for her animals. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Nina Fuller bought her farm in Hollis a couple of years after the last drought. She’d been warned by the previous owner that the old stone well went dry during that period, but when the water ran out last Thursday, Fuller panicked. She wasn’t worried about herself, but she has horses, sheep and goats.


“I didn’t know what to do. I was panicked. I can go to Hannaford and get water. I can live with it, but not the animals,” Fuller said.

A plumber drove a well point deeper into the water table at the bottom of her well to give her some relief. Fuller now has enough for her animals for the time being, but she’s washing her clothes at a laundromat, drinking bottled water and showering only occasionally.

“When you have animals, it’s a different thing, you don’t care how dirty you are,” she said.

Fuller said she’s also praying for rain. She rejoiced, briefly, in the light rain that fell Tuesday morning.

State authorities don’t have a clear idea of how many wells are failing during this drought. But well drillers and bulk water companies say they can barely keep up with demand. Wells in New Hampshire and Vermont also have failed, The Associated Press reported.

“We’ve never seen it like this,” said Judy St. Onge, who delivers water with her husband from Winterwood Farm in Lyman. St. Onge estimated they have filled more than 100 wells in the past three months with water they purchase from public supplies and then truck to customers. A load of water can be as many as 3,000 gallons and costs between $175 and $260, depending on the delivery distance.


“One of the common things we hear is that people have been in their homes for 20 to 30 years and they have never had their wells run dry,” she said.

Well drilling companies also are unusually busy. One well driller said the company has been so overwhelmed with requests for new wells that it did not want to be identified because it cannot take on new customers. Some well drilling companies have a waiting list with a month’s worth of work. A homeowner can pay $6,000 or more for a drilled well.

Hood, the water dealer from Turner, said he tries to talk people out of filling a dug well with water because it usually won’t stay there for long. Instead, he tells people to buy a cheap above-ground pool as a reservoir, rent a portable toilet and use paper cups and plates – anything to save water.

“The only thing you can do is conserve, conserve, conserve,” he said.


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