New Hampshire?s worst drought in 37 years has started a war over who controls underground water, as well as attacks on a bottled water company that wants to sell water from aquifers.
USA Springs wants to build a water bottling plant that would draw up to 439,000 gallons a day from the ground in Nottingham and Barrington, small towns in southeastern New Hampshire. That?s enough water to supply 2,200 homes a day.
Area residents have formed Save Our Groundwater to try to block the plan, holding a rally, public awareness meetings and news conferences. Their allies include Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who wants stronger controls over water usage statewide. New Hampshire?s second-worst drought since record-keeping began in 1895 has raised awareness about the limits on water supplies. Shallow wells are drying up and the wait to get a new one drilled may be weeks or months due to demands on well drillers.
Until recently, water disputes have been rare in rural northern New England, although they?ve happened elsewhere in the country. In San Antonio, for instance, there is currently a battle over building a massive golf course over the recharge zone for underground acquifer that provides water for the entire city. If it?s destroyed or too much water is used, the entire city could go dry.
?It used to be really difficult to get the towns to take any interest in groundwater protection. Now the towns have woken up,? says Sarah Pillsbury, manager of New Hampshire?s drinking water source protection program.
?I?m not anti-business,? says Denise Hart, a member of Save our Groundwater. ?It?s a complex issue and I don?t think there?s a black and white answer to it. In New England, we?re used to abundant water supplies, but people?s wells are going dry.?
Former Attorney General Greg Smith, who represents USA Springs, says a 1998 state law requires the company to show that its proposed plant wouldn?t harm existing water users or the environment. Under the law, large wells drilled after 1998 are regulated with 10-year permits. ?Existing law adequately assures there?ll be no adverse effect,? says Smith.
John Pendleton, another USA Springs lawyer, says tests will show the aquifer can support the bottling plant. ?Given the drought conditions, we think that?s going to give us additional evidence the withdrawal isn?t going to affect anyone,? he says.
So far under the 1998 law, two golf courses have received permits to pump more than 200,000 gallons a day from their wells. The law would only halt pumping during severe droughts. USA Springs? critics say there?s a difference, since watering golf courses puts the water back into the ground, while water pumped out for bottling is removed forever.
In New Hampshire, property owners now enjoy rights to reasonable use of the water on or under their land. The law establishes no hierarchy of water users, so all users have equal rights. For example, drinking water does not take precedence over water for recreational or commercial uses.
?I have 80 acres of forestland including a stream which feeds into a pond. This pond has three beaver lodges and seven heron nests,? says Patricia Newhall of Barrington, who testified at a Senate hearing. ?I am deeply concerned that the large groundwater withdrawal proposed will deplete the underground aquifer which sustains the forests and lakes in the seacoast area.?
See news story ?Drought Emergency Throughout U.S.?, click here.
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