Some well owners, farmers sweating out drought

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SCARBOROUGH — It’s no secret that most of Cumberland County, particularly the coastal areas like Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, are suffering from moderate to severe drought conditions.

Brooks, streams and ponds are drying up and there is a fear that those relying on well water may also be facing shortages now or in the coming months.

That’s one reason the town of Scarborough has let residents know there is a free public water spigot available at the Dunstan Fire Station, off Route 1.

The water comes from the Portland Water District, according to Town Manager Tom Hall, who said residents who bring their own containers are welcome to get water whenever there is a need.

“We are not aware that the problem is widespread,” he added, “but wanted to be proactive and make sure homeowners were aware of the free public water at the Dunstan fire house.”

The town itself has not yet taken measures to modify water consumption, Hall said. “Certainly if there are official drought warnings and a call for reduced water consumption, we would adjust accordingly,” he said.

Margaret Cushing, a planner with the Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency, said there are “some concerns about wells becoming very low, but this depends on the ground and surface water levels, the depth of the well, the type of well (dug or drilled) and other factors. Some areas are reporting low well levels, while others are reporting normal conditions.”

Maine’s Drought Task Force convened recently for the first time since 2002, Cushing said, adding that it would meet monthly to monitor the situation, which has farmers and households on wells across the county and around the state concerned.

For Caitlin Jordan, a Cape Elizabeth farmer and a member of the Town Council, the lack of rain has been a “huge issue” for her family’s Alewive’s Brook Farm on Ocean House Road.

Only one of the fields at the farm is irrigated, with a drip water system tied to the brook, which is running low and has dried up in some places, Jordan said.

The lack of rain “has been hugely impactful,” she said. “We are doing the rain dance.” Without rainfall, many of the farm’s standards, like lettuce, and late summer crops, like squash, are late and stunted.

What’s worse, Jordan said, is that for money-making produce like lettuce, the farm just can’t produce at the same level. For instance, she said the farm usually sells between 800 and 1,000 heads of lettuce a week, but with the drought conditions, “we just started harvesting.”

The drought has had “a big financial impact,” already, Jordan said and if “we don’t get a good amount of snowfall this winter, it will be a rough spring.”

Overall, she said, for the remainder of this summer and into the fall, “all yield will be down across the board.”

Cushing said droughts occur about every 20 years, “with a severe, three- to five-year drought occurring about every 40 years.”

The last time “a serious drought” affected Maine was 2001 through 2003, she said, when 17,000 private wells ran dry and farmers across the state lost more than $32 million in crop production, according to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Maine Emergency Management Agency recommends people with wells check their pumps periodically and repair any leaky or dripping faucets, because one drop per second wastes 2,700 gallons of water per year.

Advice for long-term water conservation includes purchasing a low-volume toilet, installing an instant hot water heater on sinks, and buying appliances that are energy and water efficient.

South Portland Fire Chief Jim Wilson said South Portland has generally not suffered from the drought, so far, because everyone in the city is on public water.

The public water spigot at the Dunstan Fire Station in Scarborough.