‘Stage Three’ Drought in Eastern Connecticut Squeezes Wells, Sparks Rules Limiting Watering


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Much-needed rain early this week won’t do much to bring Connecticut out of a drought that has seen stream flows drop to historic levels and spurred mandatory conservation orders from municipal water utilities.

Last week in East Lyme, officials put a mandatory irrigation schedule in place, restricting homeowners to watering their lawns no more than twice a week. Although that should assure the town still has enough water to meet demand, utilities engineer Ben North said that about 30 percent of the water supply is either running at a reduced rate or completely offline.

One municipal well East Lyme just spent nearly a million dollars to replace is ready to start running, North said,  but stream flows are too low for it to operate. The state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has restricted another two wells in East Lyme to a reduced rate when a nearby brook dried up in July.

Compounding limits on the town’s water supply, water usage in East Lyme is at its highest in over a decade since Gates Correctional Institution was still open and required a significant amount of water, North said. He attributed the increased water use to irrigation – people watering their lawns to keep them green despite the drought.

“You’re kind of in double jeopardy when rainfall levels start dropping, because now people are trying to irrigate and keep their lawns alive, at the same time that we’re under streamflow restrictions and we can’t produce as much water.”

Stream flows and groundwater levels are low around the state, but the situation is more extreme in eastern Connecticut, where the state declared a stage 3 drought in New London and Windham counties last week – indicating a “moderate drought” with potential to impact water supplies, agriculture and natural ecosystems.

Last week, the Yantic River in New London County was approaching historically low levels, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist John Mullaney said. And the Little River in Windham County was near the lowest level that could be recorded by its stream gauge.

In Putnam, the Little River is one of three main sources of the town’s water supply. It is at its lowest recorded flow in nearly 50 years, keeping the town from running its water treatment plant that draws from the river. That spurred Putnam to ban non-essential water use, including watering lawns and gardens and washing cars.

Putnam WPCA Superintendent Brian Lynch said the town has enough water through its other sources for the community– a wellfield and a connection to Connecticut Water – but officials felt it was better to be proactive on water conservation instead of waiting for the state to impose a ban. 

Lynch said the town has been fantastic coming together to conserve water, and they have seen a significant drop in usage since Friday. The rain on Monday was welcome, Lynch said, though not nearly enough to stem the issues with the Little River.

“We got a little over an inch of rain yesterday, but we really need about seven more to really ramp up the plant,” Lynch said.

According to North, East Lyme is in a “holding pattern” to see how the rain impacts stream flows. But he said that rain last week didn’t have a significant impact, and the town probably needed a couple more rain storms before East Lyme could turn any of its restricted supply back online.

“We’re doing everything we can to produce as much high-quality water as we can, but we’re up against it with the conditions we’re facing, so I would ask people to understand and have some patience,” North said. “Hopefully we can lift these restrictions in the next month or so.”

Mullaney said that the rain would give a short-term boost to lagging stream flows, but those flows would quickly drop again given that groundwater levels are too low to support the flow. 

Even in a year with normal rain, groundwater levels tend to fall in the summer, he said,  as growing plants draw up water before it settles into the groundwater. It isn’t until the fall and winter that the groundwater is typically replenished. 

“The rivers will probably go up slightly from the rains we’re getting today,” Mullaney said on Monday. “But because the groundwater levels are still low, the river levels will drop back off pretty rapidly.”

Low groundwater levels can also disrupt wells. And while most private wells are fairly deep, Mullaney said that when the water level falls below cracks that feed a well, it can be a problem.

Steve Harkey, with the Department of Public Health’s drinking water section, told the Interagency Drought Workgroup last week that local health departments had reported nine permits for well drilling in the second half of July – with eight coming from Windham. Another well in Franklin was reported to run dry from overuse, he said.

DPH is requiring local health departments to report new well permits, but that likely doesn’t capture all of the wells that have deepened or fractured because of a lack of water, he said. 

Harkey said he heard of private well users having water hauled in to supplement their wells. But tracking the impacts of drought across thousands of private wells is a challenge, he said, and the state health department is asking its licensed water haulers to start reporting to the state how much they are being asked to fill private wells.

On a larger scale, Connecticut Water has trucked water into Old Lyme to keep up with high summer demand from the town’s beach community. Connecticut Water said it last trucked in water to the Sound View neighborhood two weeks ago, but that demand now appeared to be getting under control.

Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormick said that so far he is only aware of one commercial well shared by multiple businesses running dry and having to have water trucked in, but it’s not something that has to be reported to the local health department so he said he’s not certain if any homeowners have done the same.

McCormick said that if someone is considering having water trucked into their well, they need to make sure it’s a safe water source. They should make sure the company is licensed by the state, and they can contact the state health department if they have questions about a company.

McCormick said it’s important for people to make sure they know where their water comes from and have a plan ahead of time for if they lose water – keeping bottled water, or finding another place they can stay during an emergency, especially if someone in their home has medical needs.

“If you have a well, make sure you have information about it,” McCormick said. “That’s good year-round advice, because if your pump goes, or something else happens to the well itself, that’s always good information to have on hand.”