Amid worsening drought conditions, the Maine Public Utilities Commission has begun an inquiry to gauge the severity of the problem facing public drinking water systems that serve the state’s population centers.

The formal request for input from 153 water utilities follows a voluntary survey done last month by the agency and the Maine Drinking Water Program. Of 81 water districts that initially responded to the survey, 47 reported that the surface and groundwater levels of their supply sources were below the seasonal norm. The problem is especially acute in southern Maine, where rainfall from April through September was 50-60 percent below normal, the National Weather Service said.

A handful of districts also reported calling for voluntary conservation measures, and at least a couple instituted mandatory restrictions.

Among other things, the agency is trying to assess whether Maine needs a statewide emergency water supply plan, or if measures being taken by individual districts are adequate. The PUC has never implemented an emergency water supply plan.

The most immediate effect of the drought has been on private wells, which serve 44 percent of the state, largely in rural areas. But the intensifying dry spell also suggests that more communities that have relied for generations on local, low-cost water sources may need to develop more drought-resilient supplies.

The cost of upgrading those water supplies also could prompt residents to develop habits to cut waste. Energy efficiency is a high art in Maine, where the price of heat and light drives conservation. But unlike residents in arid regions, Mainers rarely think about using less drinking water because of the cost.

“The convenience of the tap is so significant and the cost of the product and the service is so small,” said Rick Knowlton, vice president of operations at Maine Water Co., which serves 80,000 residents in 21 towns. “The value of water is understated. You can buy 100 gallons of water for about $1.”

PLUGGING HOLES IN SUPPLIES

Low cost doesn’t mean adequate supply, as residents of some communities are finding.

Ongoing news coverage has chronicled how York, which draws its water supply from Chase’s Pond, has started buying water from a nearby water district. In Berwick, town officials continue to battle elevated levels of manganese in the Salmon Falls River, which has turned drinking water brown and made it unsafe for infants.

The drought has been most severe in southern Maine. But the impact also is being felt in some coastal communities that sit on bedrock aquifers surrounded by saltwater.

In Stonington, the water company called for mandatory conservation in August when the influx of summer visitors threatened the output of its wells. Benjamin Pitts, the system’s operator, said the town draws 60,000 gallons in the summer, but the wells were producing less than 50,000.

Pitts visited local restaurants and inns, and owners were surprised at how much water they were using, he said. Then he investigated a summer home where renters had checked out, but left a sink faucet running. That wasted 30,000 gallons over a week.

Worried about having enough water pressure to fight fires, Pitts had a $20,000 plan in place to haul water by truck from Bucksport and keep the system’s reservoir full. But when the tourist season ended in September, demand ebbed. Now he’s hoping for enough rain and snow to replenish groundwater, while considering the need for a new well.

In Castine, which did truck water from Bucksport last fall, a new filtration system that captures natural runoff is fortifying three small reservoirs. The system cost $850,000 and is contributing to a proposed 21 percent increase in water rates. But it’s not enough. The town issued a mandatory conservation order last month, banning lawn watering and boat and car washing.

Shortages also are cropping up away from the coast, in the water-rich mountains of western Maine.

In Dover-Foxcroft, the water district is asking its 960 customers to conserve. The goal is to avoid a mandatory order, it said, which could result in fines or disconnections for excessive use.

Dover-Foxcroft takes water from Salmon Stream Pond and has no backup source. Matthew Demers, the district superintendent, has been meeting with state officials about moving the intake into deeper water. He’s also exploring a supplemental source.

A TICKING CLOCK TO RECHARGE

Autumn is the best time for drinking water sources to recharge, with leaves down and trees cutting their water intake. But there’s a short window in Maine before the ground and surface water freezes.

“We are concerned that without significant rain this fall, levels may drop to critical levels during the winter months,” Demers wrote to his customers.

Maine typically has an abundance of water. The state is flecked with 6,000 named lakes and ponds, and on average receives more than 40 inches of precipitation a year. But most of the state has had below-average rainfall since April. Groundwater levels are lower than they’ve been in 11 to 35 years, the U.S. Geological Survey has determined.

The municipal systems that serve the state’s largest cities are largely supplied by surface water. While levels may be below normal, none of the large water districts are reporting problems.

Water levels on Sebago Lake, the state’s deepest and second-largest lake, are at a 10-year low, according to the Portland Water District. But there’s plenty of water for the 54,000 customers in 11 communities, said Michelle Clements, a district spokeswoman, including large users such as the Calpine power plant and Sappi paper mill in Westbrook, and Maine Medical Center in Portland.

Portland is the only system with a sizable distribution line, running 16 miles from Sebago Lake. The drought may foreshadow the need to pipe water longer distances, especially in southern Maine, where most of the state’s growth is taking place, said Roger Crouse, director of the Maine Drinking Water Program. Crouse noted the planning underway by the Southern Maine Regional Water Council, a 11-year-old coalition of water utilities that include South Berwick, York, Biddeford and Portland. They identified the Saco River and Sebago Lake as the only two freshwater sources with enough capacity to serve the region’s long-term population and economic growth.

“If we move to a future that makes water less available close by, how do we bring water from longer distances?” Crouse said. “That will have an impact on ratepayers.”

 


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