As southern Maine sinks ever deeper into severe drought, a rising number of privately owned drinking wells are running dry.

Kate Salvato woke up last weekend to find a dry well at her home in Gray.

Salvato said she knew she could buy bottled water for her family, but buying bottled water for the family’s four goats “would get a little costly.” The goats, which are therapy animals for her 8-year-old son, go through about 15 gallons a day.

After Salvato explained her predicament on Facebook, one neighbor stopped by with 50 gallons of water and another brought a 300-gallon container that a friend was able to fill, Salvato said. A couple of rainstorms this week recharged her well enough to allow the family to take some showers and run the dishwasher.

As of last week, 35 residents reported wells running dry to the Maine Drought Task Force — 15 more than at this time last year and almost as many as were reported at this point in 2020, which was Maine’s driest year in almost two decades, state records show. By the end of 2020, after a very dry fall, the task force received more than 100 reports of privately owned wells running dry.

“It’s too early to say what will happen this year, but we aren’t expecting much rain in August,” said task force coordinator Samuel Roy, a natural hazards planner with the Maine Emergency Management Agency. “It will probably get worse before it gets better.”

Not all wells that run dry are reported, but the task force encourages people to submit reports by filling out an online survey so the state can monitor drought conditions and refer low-income property owners to resources to help them pay for a new well. Well owners can file the reports at maine-dry-well-survey-maine.hub.arcgis.com.

Roy said the majority of dry well reports are coming from residential homeowners living in York, Cumberland and Kennebec counties — the same parts of the state hardest hit by the current drought that is being caused by several years of low snow and rainfall totals.

In North Yarmouth, Nick McCrea was hoping to top off his swimming pool earlier this month and left the water running into the pool while he went to do a few errands. When he returned and went to shut the water off, he found it was already off — because the well was dry.

The pump burned out due to pumping air and luckily McCrea said he was able to have it replaced quickly, but at a cost of about $1,500. He and his partner, Nyssa Gatcombe, spent the following week trying to conserve water while waiting for the well to refill.

The pair also have a pet boarding business, Magic of Paws, on their property that has a separate well, and McCrea said they were able to use water from that well, which is a deeper, drilled well as opposed to the dug well at their house. But McCrea said in the future he’ll think twice about refilling the pool from the well during especially dry weather.

“For people who aren’t familiar with their well capacity like we weren’t, I would just be wary during these weather changes and dry spells of how you’re using water,” McCrea said. “I could have avoided this if I just put a little more thought into the fact we haven’t had significant rain for weeks.”

About one third of Mainers, or about 441,000 people, are now facing moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That translates into declining hay, grain and honey production, more wildfires, browning lawns and trees and falling reservoir and lake levels.

Another third of Mainers, or about 442,000 people, are now enduring extreme drought conditions. The yields and sizes of specialty crops are smaller, cattle must be fed instead of allowed to graze, outdoor burns are limited, air and water quality is poor and groundwater levels are low.

In Southern and Midcoast Maine, desperate homeowners with dry wells or sputtering faucets are using social media to trade tips on how to conserve water — sink sponge baths, bucket showers, laundromat runs and using dehumidifier water to save thirsty gardens are popular.

Some nervous Mainers are asking friends and family to postpone their planned summer visits until fall because they are afraid that too many showers will drain their wells dry. A few have even organized group rain dances and prayer circles over Zoom.

Well drilling companies are getting busier, according to harried receptionists answering company phones — so busy that some voicemail messages are warning potential customers they will have to wait until the spring of 2023 to get an appointment for a new or expanded well.

The task force keeps a list of licensed well drilling companies on its dry well survey website. State law allows a homeowner to dig their own well, but some mortgage and insurance companies may require drilling or digging be done by a licensed operator.

Minimum setbacks from septic fields, roads and property borders often apply as well.

It is up to homeowners to determine if their well water is free of contaminants and safe to drink.

Southern Maine has a rainfall deficit of 3 to 8 inches so far this year, according to Sarah Jamison, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service. The crux of the problem, Jamison said, was that a dry spell hit Maine in mid-June.

“It put stress on the system at the worst period of time, right there during peak heating,” Jamison said. “Increased evaporation and heating, which is typical … just exacerbated the drought conditions.”

Historically, the fall season brings widespread light rain extending over days, which tends to help with droughts, Jamison said. In the meantime, scattered showers are predicted for next week, but not any “appreciable” rain that would help with the drought, Jamison said.

“The best way to eliminate a drought is to have widespread light rain, so you can really have that rainfall absorb into the ground,” Jamison said. “We are going to be getting into a kind of a cool and wet pattern, but we’re not looking at the kind of rainfall that could really help bring us out of this drought.”

Salvato, the Gray woman whose well ran dry, said the large 300-gallon container is still mostly full, easing her mind for the short term. But she said the drought is also causing concern about the availability and price of hay her goats will need for the winter.

Hay currently runs about $10 to $12 a bale and the goats go through three or four bales a week. Salvato said she expects the price to rise to about $15 a bale this winter, due to the drought and higher gas prices, and hopes it doesn’t go higher and bite the family’s budget.

Staff Writers Edward D. Murphy and Rachel Ohm contributed to this story.

 

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