With rainfall scarce, Stonington has turned to trucks to refill its public water supply
It's been a challenging few years for the Stonington Water Co.
It must provide the drinking water for a small lobster fishing community that’s quiet for most of the year, but bustling in summer. And for years, it could rely on rain and snow to do just that: When precipitation fell, it seeped into the ground and recharged the drilled wells that feed the town’s faucets, showers and toilets.
But for the last two years, there wasn’t enough rain or snow to meet the late-summer demand.
“Except for last night, it’s only rained I think three times here all summer, any amount of rain,” said Matthew Betts, the water superintendent, on a cloudy afternoon in late September, when sections of Maine’s coast were still in drought.
So, the town had to look elsewhere. It has bought more than a million gallons of water over the last two summers — about 400,000 last year, and double that this year. It has cost nearly $117,000 to buy the water from Silver Lake in Bucksport and truck it 40 miles south to Stonington.
Whenever the truck arrived at the town’s small brick pumping station — often three times a day — Betts or one of his colleagues ran a hose out to it. Water would flow to an underground tank, where it was disinfected, tested and pumped to the rest of the town.
The situation in Stonington is rare. Unlike in the western U.S., Maine has an abundance of water. The state uses just 1% of the precipitation that seeps into the groundwater supply every year, according to official estimates.
But when drought hits, some communities can be vulnerable to scarcity. That’s because the demand for water typically peaks in summer — as more visitors descend on the state and Mainers spend more time irrigating crops and lawns — just as hot, dry weather cuts into the supply. And just because it rains in one area, that water doesn’t automatically flow where it’s needed.
“Even though we’re very rich in water, water is a very local resource. So when you put a well in your backyard, you’re not drawing it from Aroostook County if you’re in Penobscot County,” says Ryan Gordon, a hydrogeologist at the Maine Geological Survey. “It's that kind of uneven distribution that puts some areas in a tight spot.”
Gordon says that some coastal communities are especially vulnerable. They’re getting more developed, but many of them sit on bedrock that’s harder to drill for wells.
And a warming climate could bring other challenges, including more intense droughts and heavier rainstorms that don’t have time to soak into the ground. Additionally, depleted groundwater levels and rising seas increase the risk that saltwater will intrude on freshwater supplies.
A few other communities have run out of water in the past. York has piped it in from nearby towns. Castine now treats local pond water for drinking after previously having to truck it in.
Annaleise Hafford, who manages the Stonington Water Co. for Olver Associates, warns that the costs for Stonington’s approximately 270 water users will likely grow as the town pursues longer term solutions.
It’s starting to look for additional wells and upgrading other infrastructure that will help conserve the year-round supply, including adding a bigger standpipe that can store water throughout the year. Some of that work is funded by grants, but the town also expects the annual fees for water customers — they now start at about $500 for the smallest users — to go up soon.
“The last two years are the only years we’ve had to haul water,” Hafford says. “Never before in the history of this system.
"Obviously it’s not desirable, but I will say, even the fix is going to be expensive."
Although it can be challenging for communities to respond to water scarcity, Gordon warns that the stress can be even greater on individuals with private wells that run dry during summer, since they don’t have the resources of a whole community to truck in water or look for it elsewhere.
There have been a number of dry wells reported in Maine during each of the last three summers, according to the latest data from the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
The most difficult recent summer was 2020, when almost 300 dry wells were reported, about a third of which were in far north Aroostook County. Just 21 dry wells were reported last year, and 96 have been reported this year, with the most coming from southern and coastal counties.
“It’s quite a catastrophe when your home runs out of water, and you’re looking at $10,000 for a new well,” Gordon says.
Stonington Selectperson Evelyn Duncan is president of the municipal Stonington Water Co., but happens to get her own water from a well.
She has a neighbor whose own well recently ran dry, and she took steps to avoid that, including no watering flowers or grass, and limited water use for her vegetable garden and washing dishes.
She also took shorter showers, and gave some creative advice to get her kids to do the same.
“'If you’re not out in five minutes, you know, I’m going to turn on the hot water tap downstairs, which will then make a little cold water tap upstairs.' So they know that they need to kind of keep it short,” she says.
Back at the town's pumping station, Betts and his colleagues have also been urging residents to save water. The town issued a conservation order in July, which allowed them to ask residents to refrain from doing excessive things like pressure washing their houses.
But conservation could get harder. More vacationers have come to Stonington during the COVID pandemic, and they’ve been sticking around later in the season than they generally did in the past.
“A lot of the big houses have been bought by people and they’ve broken up into three, four, five apartments, so instead of one family living there, you’ve got 10 people there in a week, 20 people, and they use a lot more water,” Betts says.
On an annual basis, the amount of water provided by the Stonington Water Co. has not significantly changed over the last decade, hovering between 10 million and 13.5 million gallons, according to its own data. But during the summer months, Hafford estimates that daily water consumption has grown from about 38,000 gallons a couple years ago, to 46,000 gallons this year.
In the meantime, Betts has been keeping his eyes on the forecast.
“Actually they’re giving one to two inches of rain for tonight, for here, and I’m hoping and praying that we get it,” he said in late September.
For now, those prayers may be answered. Fall has come, bringing more rain. And Stonington officials don't think they'll need to truck in any more water this year.
But the summer crowds will be back. And during the next few droughts, it'll take hard work to make sure there's water for them.