UNH faculty and alumni urge changes in water resource management

UNH faculty and alumni urge changes in water resource management

By Mark Pechenik

A University of New Hampshire (UNH) professor is addressing an increasingly troubling sign of summer in New England: drought restrictions. At the same time, ongoing climate concerns have UNH College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (CEPS) faculty, and at least one CEPS alum, calling for substantial revisions in regional water sustainability strategies.

Water sustainability is becoming especially acute within the New Hampshire Seacoast region, home to UNH’s main Durham, NH campus. UNH Assistant Professor of Hydrogeology J. Matthew Davis cites federal statistics predicting 25% population growth in the region over the next 15 years accompanied by a 54% increase in water usage – largely due to new business and residential construction.

Seeking to keep pace with water demands, Davis is serving as a consultant with Emery & Garrett Groundwater, Inc., based in Meredith, NH, on accessing water availability within the nearby Spruce Hole “underground” Aquifer. Presently, 38 local monitoring wells are being utilized to determine if drawing groundwater from the Aquifer will adversely affect surrounding wells, wetlands, surface streams and bogs in the area.

If tests prove that extended pumping does not cause adverse impacts to the local environment, a permanent production well will be activated. “It will withdraw a significant amount of stored groundwater , during short terms, to meet peak demands when water supply availability from the Lamprey River and Oyster River is low,” explains Jamie Emery, the firm’s president and a 1980 UNH graduate.

Plans are also underway to transfer water from the nearby Lamprey River into the aquifer during periods of high water flow – a process called artificial recharge. “For instance, when there is snow melt and floods in early spring, water would be pumped from the Lamprey River to the Spruce Hole Aquifer,” Emery and Davis points out. This would ensure reliance on the Aquifer as a supplemental sustainable water resource.

Davis points out that the UNH-Durham Spruce Hole Aquifer plan could be an example for other New England communities. “The tapping and recharging of underground aquifers could help ease regional drought concerns,” he points out.

Such creative water resource management is vital in light of New England’s changing climate and population growth.

“We have to ask ‘how much is enough?’ when it comes to water sustainability,” says UNH Research Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Cameron Wake. Communities need to decide if it is sufficient to simply provide safe drinking water or whether water for swimming pools, lawn irrigation, business expansion or larger homes also takes priority, he says.

Wake cites this year’s violent spring rainfalls and increased frequency of 100-year storms over the past decade as possible signs of environmental change further complicating water sustainability. Ironically, such storms offer little as water resources since their destructive nature overwhelms municipal water systems.

There is also potential for a mirror-image weather scenario. “Within the next 50 years, we could experience a pattern featuring 65 days of drought and temperatures well above 90 degrees Fahrenheit every summer,” says Wake. “This will place even greater stress on water resources.”

The residual effects of development further challenges water sustainability. For example, a study by UNH Professor of Water Resources Management Bill McDowell found that, among a sampling of private wells in the Lamprey River watershed, many were severely contaminated by sodium chloride. The culprit: Increased winter usage of road salt by local municipalities.

Lawn fertilizers and septic systems –likely resulting from new housing and commercial construction — are suspect in preliminary UNH studies pointing to elevated levels of nitrogen in local waterways. Nitrogen spikes can choke off oxygen in rivers and streams resulting in massive fish kills and water unfit for consumption.

These environmental threats have many within the CEPS community calling for fundamental change in water resource management. “First, water conservation must continue to be a part of any water sustainability strategy – something which UNH and the Town of Durham have been very aggressive in promoting” says Emery.

Meanwhile, the current recession offers more opportunities for planning and action. “Now, while economic activity is at a low ebb, we can make sure that commercial and residential development take place away from sensitive watersheds or aquifers. Since the availability of groundwater resources is dependant upon site-specific geologic conditions and because growth will continue to occur, future land use decisions may (and will) interfere with groundwater availability. We can change where and what land use activity occurs…but we can not change where the underlying aquifers exist ” Emery says.

At the same time, Emery and McDowell favor development of storm water retention ponds that would, in effect, capture and soak up rainwater for absorption into water systems. In this way, excess moisture from severe storms could be put to practical use.

To help prevent contamination, McDowell advises towns to rely less on road salt or, perhaps, switch to safer alternatives such as sodium magnesium acetate or biodegradable agents like sugar beet extract or even molasses. Similarly, use of organic-based fertilizers could reduce nitrogen in the water supply.

No matter what the solution, the time for water sustainability change is now. “We’re at the tipping point,” says McDowell. “What we do or don’t do on this issue will determine the quality and quantity of our water for a long time to come.”

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