Councilors at a special Town Council meeting last week postponed a decision on a town watering ban after a public hearing with community members, then took action on the ban at their regular Monday night meeting, Oct. 3 (see story page 1).
The Council held the special meeting and public hearing Tuesday, Sept. 27 to discuss a water ban after Town Manager Kevin Smith was advised by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) that the agency was requesting municipalities use their statutory authority under RSA 41:11-d to enact a ban for both public and private wells.
As of Sept. 1, the DES has classified Londonderry as being under “severe” or “extreme” drought conditions, Smith wrote in a memo.
The proposed restriction would apply to use of water from public or private wells for residential outdoor lawn watering.
The memo stated that enforcement would be by the Londonderry Police Department and that anyone not in compliance would first receive a warning, then a fine of $250, and then a fine of $500.
Smith told the Council that the ban would apply only to residential properties. Under state statute, the town does not have the authority to impose a ban on commercial or municipal properties, he said. However, there is language in the resolution that asks businesses to voluntarily comply with the ban.
Smith also told the Council that the state cannot make Londonderry effect a ban. But he said, in a conference call two weeks before, that Gov. Maggie Hassan had “strongly urged” the ban.
Chairman John Farrell observed that 80 percent of Londonderry homes are on town wells.
John Trottier, assistant director of public works, described the water retention process. An aquifer, he said, is similar to a large underground storage tank for water. The water is distinguished between shallow water, which flows above the bedrock, and deep water, which flows through cracks in the bedrock. The water may be recharged through fissures in the rock, he said. But the water could come from as far as a mile away, he added.
The only way to recharge the system is through rainfall, Trottier said, and that is currently 50 percent below normal for this time of year.
Farrell observed that for a well to fail, it could be as much as $8,000 to $10,000 for the homeowner to have it re-drilled.
Tweaking the ordinance
Councilor Tom Dolan suggested adding language stating that the suspension may be lifted by the Town Manager and Council “when conditions so warrant.”
He also suggested an “escape hatch” added to the section on penalties. He and the other Councilors have fielded multiple e-mails and phone calls from residents concerned about their unique situations, he said.
“People will come back to us and say, ‘What about Condition X, Y or Z?'” he told the other Councilors. “They could be things we’re not even thinking about right now.”
The added language would give Smith some discretion to grant exemptions for up to a week, depending on the circumstances, Dolan said.
Conservation Commission Chair Marge Badois stopped by before her own meeting Sept. 27, and proposed adding another condition. “I think we should also restrict the commercial extraction of water, such as companies getting pool water and the Department of Transportation using it for dust control,” Badois told the Council. “We depend on our source of water.”
In addition to the obvious conservation issues, she said, the Londonderry Fire Department needs to access water in case of an emergency.
Smith said Town Attorney Michael Ramsdell is looking into the legalities of commercial restrictions.
Eric Spinner, a local landscaper, said he has had a number of clients call him looking for direction. “The one thing I request,” he said, “is consideration for people who have recently installed a lot of landscaping. A new lawn needs hydroseeding.” Realistically, he said, there are only a couple of weeks of growth left.
Resident Joanne Fatur is one of Spinner’s clients, and recently redid her lawn. “We made a considerable investment,” she said. “Could there be a compromise, such as watering on odd-even days?”
Farrell said the police would have discretion to work with homeowners and their unique situations. But as the legislative body, he said, “Our job is to enact the ordinance.”
“We are in the same boat,” homeowner Jeff O’Connor said. He recently put in landscaping. “I don’t know why it has to be ‘all or nothing,'” he told the Council.
“The state has rung the bell on this one,” Farrell responded. While “there will be a conversation” on individual circumstances, he’s concerned about the people already calling the Fire Department and saying, “My well is dry.”
Fatur’s husband, Tom, said his home is on town water, not a private well, and asked, “Why should we be affected?”
“We are passing an ordinance,” Farrell said. “The state allows us to ban or not ban.”
“How much water does this save?” Fatur pressed.
Trottier said he didn’t know, but that “If the DES is reaching out to municipalities,” it must be extensive.
The Faturs are on the Pennichuck water system out of Nashua, and Trottier pointed out that Pennichuck gets its water from Manchester Water Works, which has just enacted a restriction.
Resident Rick Russman said the town should have a 10-year plan for dealing with water issues. “This is our most important resource, other than air,” he said.
He expressed concern as to how the Woodmont Commons development would affect town water supplies. “They are going to suck it out of the ground,” he said. “The more water you suck out of the ground, the more it affects wells.”
Dolan pointed out that Woodmont would be using a municipal water system and not a well.
Farrell said, “We are working a study of natural resources into the budget.”
And Dolan said the town did take aggressive action to protect its water 13 to 15 years ago. “We did an environmental study,” he said, and the town enacted policies to protect its surface water, which recharges the groundwater.
“Londonderry was a leader in the state in protecting water,” he reminded the Council and audience.
No jurisdiction over schools
Resident and Conservation member Mike Byerly asked about the Londonderry School District. If water is in short supply, he said, “How can we get the schools to stop watering their playing fields?”
Farrell said that municipalities can “violate” their own ordinances. “If we want a bigger sign than allowed at the Fire Department, we can put one there,” he said. But the School District is a separate form of government, he said, and “we can’t force them to do anything.”
The town can send letters to businesses asking them to voluntarily comply, but it has no authority over the schools, Farrell reiterated.
Byerly said, “It sticks in my craw to drive by the high school, and to see the giant sprinklers going.”
The School Board discussed the water crisis in its own meeting, occurring at the same time (see related story page 1).
The grass is greener, but only for two weeks
Councilor Jim Butler asked Spinner how much water he would need for the rest of the growing season, and observed that there were only about two weeks left. “It is almost Oct. 1,” Butler said.
“We should have had this conversation two months ago,” Spinner responded. He agreed with the Council that, “We have to do what we have to do to conserve.”
Established lawns should not need watering at this point, Spinner added. But he’s concerned about those newly-seeded yards, some of which he and his staff put in.
Butler said he wasn’t comfortable voting on the issue that night. “It’s not too late,” he said, “it’s too early. We need to go back and think and structure something for next spring or summer that makes sense.”
Councilor Joe Green disagreed. “It is clear what the state asked us to do,” he said. “I wish it had come sooner.”
Green observed that people were losing their way of life. Some can’t take showers or flush their toilets. “There’s a big difference,” he said, “between that and decorative grass.”
Dolan said he wasn’t against moving forward with the ordinance, but added that he would like to see a provision for “flexibility” to deal with unforeseen circumstances.
That could be Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or assigning homeowners to odd-even days, he said.
Dolan added that it’s not the Council’s purview to micro-manage the water ban. Giving authority to Smith, he said, would allow Smith to be flexible and make decisions.
Green said he didn’t think there should be too many tweaks or amendments to the original ordinance. “I don’t want to play attorney,” he said. “If we adjust it, we may dilute it to the point where it is not enforceable.”
And any changes should be run by Ramsdell, Green added.
“We are all taxpayers,” Butler said. “And the commercial entities are big water users.”
Green said he agreed, but pointed out that the state does not give the town jurisdiction over any commercial entitities.
Farrell said he was looking at what’s best for everyone. “I don’t want to be in Market Basket in December and have someone stop me and say, ‘You let them do it, and now my well is dry.'”
Butler invoked his executive privilege to table the item and it was tabled to Monday, Oct. 3.