Scooter MacMillan, Editor
It’s a great word for the Halloween season. Wicked is also the word Steven Owen uses to describe how busy he, and others in the area who work to ensure people have water at their homes, have been.
As in the phrase: “We’re all wicked busy.”
Owen, owner of Fresh Water Haulers, does just what the name of his business suggests. And in the 19 years he’s been taking his tanker trucks of water to fill people’s wells or water tanks, this year has been his busiest.
He said this year has been 20-30 percent busier than last year.
Owen hears his friends in the related business of drilling water wells saying the same thing — business is too good because it’s too dry.
“I’ve never seen the brooks as dry as I’ve seen them this year. There are islands growing up in the middle of brooks where you’ve never seen them before,” Owen said.
Driving along Route 100 between Waitsfield and Warren a couple of weeks ago, he said the Mad River looked so dry that he thought he might be able to walk across it in some places without getting his feet wet.
Owen said a lot of calls he’s gotten in Charlotte this year have been from the Mt. Philo area. A couple of other places where he’s been trucking lots of water include Lake Iroquois in Hinesburg and in Stowe.
Although there has been a good bit of rain recently, that doesn’t necessarily mean the calls for water will stop. There’s not a direct correlation between the water table and rainfall.
A hard rain with a lot of water often doesn’t do much to replenish the aquifer because it may run off and into streams without soaking into the ground. The best rainfall to help bring the water table back up is a slow rain that has time to seep in, he said.
And Owen said, it is hard to know if the water table will be replenished during the winter. If there’s a hard freeze, the rainfall won’t be getting into water table in areas where it’s low.
Christina Asquith and her family have lived in the Mt. Philo area for five years and didn’t have their well go dry until this year. Over the last year, they’ve had to have their well filled about six times.
Here again, it is hard to conclusively say the Asquith water woes are due to drought. A neighbor built an accessory dwelling unit with a well which may have tapped into the same aquifer their well was drawing from.
It could be a coincidence or it could be a combination of another well and a drought, but Asquith, who is on the development review board, would like the planning commission to consider the impact of accessory dwelling units on neighboring wells during its next stage of considering amendments to Charlotte’s land-use regulations, which will be developed during the winter for voters to approve in Town Meeting Day voting in March.
Asquith said she wasn’t sure how such an amendment might be crafted, but she would like to see the planning commission discuss it.
“People don’t know how it feels until they turn that tap on and nothing comes out. It is a real heart-stopping moment,” Asquith said.
“It’s not a minor inconvenience,” she continued, saying you can’t give your kids a bath, the dishes and laundry pile up, and you can’t even wash your hands.
“You just start to go a little crazy as a mom with three kids because everything gets backed up,” Asquith said.
She worries because she suspects lots of people in Charlotte might not have the $500 needed to pay for refilling their well or a tank.
Selectboard member Matt Krasnow said he hadn’t heard from anyone besides Asquith who was having well issues this year, but he thinks it’s a habitual Charlotte problem.
His family was on a well when he was growing up, and they periodically had to have water delivered until they put in a cistern. He feels that usually solves the problem because the well replenishes the cistern when people aren’t using water, meaning there’s water to use when there’s high demand and low flow.
Krasnow said his sister who lives in the Mt. Philo area had water problems with a well that produces less than a gallon a minute, but after her family put in 1,000 gallons worth of storage tanks, they haven’t had a problem.
One of the solutions Owen suggested people might try is hydrofracking, which involves injecting water into a drilled well at high pressure in hopes of widening fractures in the bedrock to increase water flow.
A lot of people have chosen hydrofracking and it has worked, but Krasnow thinks adding storage is usually an easier and cheaper solution. Although he has heard of wells out west going dry and staying dry, Krasnow said he hasn’t ever heard of any wells going completely dry and not replenishing in Charlotte.
Kiesha Richardson with Vermont Well & Pump in Hinesburg said requests for hydrofracking have gone way up since the pandemic. She thinks a combination of people staying home more and lots of people moving into the area has increased the demand for water.
Hydrofracking is not a sure fix for the problem. She said, like other companies, Vermont Well & Pump looks at all sorts of data like the depth of the water table and the proximity and flow rate of other wells in the vicinity, but still it’s a gamble. You don’t know for sure until you try.
A drilled well is pulling water from a few hundred feet down, so it takes a while for surface water to get that far. Ground water tends to move about a foot a day — either horizontally or vertically, said Scott Stewart, a hydrogeologist with the Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Conservation.
“It takes days, months, years, hundreds of years for water to actually percolate into the bedrock in a lot of different areas,” Stewart said. In most areas it can take several years to reverse the impact of low rainfall.
Rick Kiah, a hydrologic technician in the New England Water Science Center, said for several years the Connecticut River Valley has been trending much below normal water levels, but that’s not necessarily a hydrologic drought.
There are three types of drought. A meteorologic drought is when rainfall is below normal for an extended time. When a meteorologic drought, or lack of precipitation, is severe enough it can become an agricultural drought, which is when the soil moisture drops alarmingly. When streamflow, surface water and groundwater are all reduced severely and long enough, then it is considered a hydrologic drought.
The USGS has test wells around the state where it monitors groundwater levels. The closest to this area is a test well in Milton that has been monitored since 1956. Although it wasn’t a long enough period to be considered a drought, from December to February last winter, that well tested the lowest it has ever tested.
The Milton well recovered during the spring, but it is dropping again. However, Kiah was not willing to attribute the low test well flow to evidence of climate change.
“Our most severe drought was in the 60s. Basically, that whole decade was in low conditions,” Kiah said. “Historically, things are cyclical.”