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Water Sustainability in NH

Citizens Count Editor

New Hampshire has a vast network of waterways, with 18 miles of coastline, nearly 1,000 lakes, and 17,000 miles of rivers. But with the population increasing and the integrity of our water system's infrastructure declining, the availability and sustainability of our state's water is at risk. 

Aside from needing a potable water source for our daily lives, New Hampshire relies on quality water to sustain agriculture, wildlife, industries, and recreation. A balanced approach to water sustainability should protect the environment and public interest while at the same time managing property values, water fees, and our natural water supply.

Poor infrastructure

An aging system for water distribution means leakage of pipes, disruptions in availability, and potentially unsanitary conditions. According to a 2012 report from the New Hampshire Local Government Center, many New Hampshire towns and cities have water infrastructure dating to the 1800s.

With the state acquiring new water users every day, and each user requiring upwards of 75 gallons per day, the system is also overloaded.

However, updating water infrastructure is expensive.  When she declared "Drinking Water Week" in May 2013, then-Gov. Maggie Hassan  noted that drinking water and wastewater infrastructure need roughly $3 billion in repairs and upgrades over the next decade.

Historically New Hampshire towns have often had assistance from state and federal government in paying for water infrastructure upgrades.  However, funds from the federal Clean Water Act are long gone, and since the 2008 recession the state government has cut back infrastructure grants. Municipalities still carry a large portion of costs.

Some towns also argue that the federal government should loosen clean water restrictions to lower the cost of water infrastructure upgrades.

In December 2015, New Hampshire was awarded $23 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade sewage plants and drinking water systems.

Weather and the environment

A 2012 report from Environment New Hampshire found that the frequency of "extreme rain events" in New Hampshire has more than doubled in the past fifty years.  The sea level is also rising, although there is debate over how quickly the level is changing.

New Hampshire's aging water infrastructure is not equipped to deal with the extra water from these environmental changes.  The use of impervious surfaces in construction, notably pavement, has also decreased the natural ability of the land to re-absorb water.  During heavy storms, overflow and run-off leads to water pollution, not to mention flooding.

Municipalities must decide which is less costly: updating storm-water infrastructure, or managing flooding and water pollution after extreme weather.

Water rights

Water is also becoming a globalized commodity. Hampton Water Co. and Pennichuck Water Works in Nashua have each been purchased by international companies, clouding the issue of who actually owns the state's water.

Moreover, because water does not respect political or municipal boundaries, water issues have to be addressed at the watershed level.  A watershed is an area of land that shares a common water course, and often includes multiple towns and cities. Those towns and cities may have independent and even conflicting water interests.

Regardless of the town they live in, private property owners who want to use water face regulations at the local, state, and federal levels regarding the building and use of private water sources. Water becomes a property rights issue in this context.

The Shoreland Protection Act provides an example of the tension between waterfront property owners and environmentalists.  Passed in 2007, the Shoreland Protection Act applied strict rules to the use and development of the land located from the shoreline to 250 feet inland. Permits from the state were required for all construction, excavation and filling.  Supporters argued the Shoreland Protection Act's uniform standards were necessary to protect clean, potable water - and therefore property values - across the state.  Opponents argued that the regulations on paving, tree-trimmings, and even removing poison ivy were far too restrictive, and made shorefront land unappealing to buyers. The Legislature worked with property owners to significantly revise the Shoreland Protection Act (now named the Shoreland Water Quality Protection Act) in 2011 and 2013.

The Water Sustainability Commission

The Governor's Water Sustainability Commission was established on April 22, 2011, in order to "identify strategies and management measures for ensuring that the quality and quantity of New Hampshire's water resources in 25 years are as good as or better than they are today."  The Commission published their report in December 2012.

The final report of the commission uncovered the following observations, as reported by the Union Leader

  • New Hampshire's population of roughly 1.3 million is putting a lot of pressure on water resources
  • New Hampshire needs to plan for a huge demographic shift. The "silver tsunami" of retiring baby-boomers wants to be near the lakes. This shift will increase human impact and run-off potential.
  • The state's water-carrying infrastructure is nearing its expiration date. Most water systems were built in the early 1900s.  Repairs are estimated at $2.9 billion.

Current water concerns

Pease well contamination

The city of Portsmouth is currently working with the Pease Development Authority and the United States Air Force to expedite the process of designing a water treatment system to remove contaminants in three drinking water supplies. Perfluorochemical compounds (PFCs) were discovered in the Smith, Harrison, and Haven wells at Pease International Tradeport (a former Air Force base) in 2014. The Air Force and the Environmental Protection Agency suspect the contaminants came from a firefighting foam once used on the base. People who work at Pease and children attending a day care there presented with elevated levels of contaminants in their blood in tests conducted after the discovery of the well contaminations.

The city and the Pease Development Authority reached an agreement with the Air Force in April 2016 to install a carbon filter system to treat the wells; the Air Force will reimburse the city up to $58,700 for the carbon filter pilot system and $831,000 for the installation and demonstration project. In 2017, the Air Force announced that it had already spent $25 million addressing the contamination but planned to spend an additional $30 million during the year.

PFOA contamination

In March 2016, the chemical PFOA was detected in private wells in several towns in New Hampshire. One source of the chemical has been traced to the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics facility in Merrimack; the state Department of Environmental Services took water samples from within a one-mile radius of the facility and found PFOA of various concentrations.

The EPA subsequently announced a lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals PFOA or PFOS in drinking water; previous provisional levels were 400 parts per trillion for PFOA and 200 parts per trillion for PFOS. 

In 2018, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill that requires the state Department of Environmental Services to reevaluate groundwater standards previously set for PFOA contamination. The law also created a state toxicologist position and requires DES to set standards for toxic chemicals detected at the Coakley landfill and the former Pease Air Force Base.


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