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Maine Stoic In Drought*

March 15, 2002

Drought Leaves Maine Stoic but Struggling


EBAGO LAKE, Me., March 14 — In a cluster of 40 homes near huge Sebago Lake, whose waters are spookily low and wearing a dismal late-winter collar of mud, residents have enough water in their wells to shower every other day — and they shower fast.

They flush their toilets once a day. Unable to use washing machines in their homes for the past five months, they wait in long lines at coin-operated laundries. For supper, they usually eat sandwiches off paper plates. If they want a proper meal — the kind that requires washing a lot of dishes — they drive to a restaurant.

What little groundwater seeps into their wells is often contaminated. The foul stuff that is intermittently on tap at the home of Wendy Hurley, 34, a professor of sports medicine at the University of Southern Maine, has made her, her dogs and her cats sick. Dr. Hurley said it was killing her houseplants. Since last fall, she and her neighbors have been forced not only to drink bottled water, but to cook and brush their teeth with it, too.

A record-setting drought along the Eastern Seaboard, which has raised alarms that water shortages will make life miserable all summer long, has been making life miserable in rural Maine all winter. The Maine Emergency Management Agency says it believes that many of the 53,000 households in the state that depend on shallow wells are running low on water.

If exceptional rains do not come for several consecutive months this spring, experts agree, widespread hardship could lead to a health crisis for tens of thousands of rural residents. Continued severe drought could also cripple the tourist season, which triples water usage in many small lake and coastal communities.

Determining the extent of the suffering has been difficult because the people of Maine are not prone to complaining.

"We think there are a lot of people out there not letting anybody know they are in trouble," said Lynette Miller, a senior planner at the emergency management agency. "I attribute a lot of it to the stoicism of Maine. They feel that if they hang on long enough, it will rain."

Normally, that would make sense.

Maine is usually a very wet place, especially in the winter. The state gets more than three and a half feet of precipitation in a typical year, much of it in the form of snow. Winter usually refills Maine's 6,000 lakes and adequately supplies groundwater to the 280,000 houses that depend on wells or springs. Even after the driest of years — last year was the driest of the 108 on record — hydrologists say that a Maine winter can be counted on to help reset the water clock.

But something scary happened over the last six months, said Robert A. Lent, district chief for the United States Geological Survey. Maine entered the winter with groundwater at dangerously low levels — and as the long, dry, warmish winter slouches toward spring, they keep going lower. Against all experience, winter has made the drought worse.

"We have been setting record lows for groundwater almost every day for quite a while," Mr. Lent said. "We have had really low water for over two years now."

The consequences of low water are popping up all over Maine. Construction of many new homes has been postponed. Farmers are selling cattle. Small-town water districts will not allow fire departments to flush hydrants. Well-drilling companies are making money hand over fist, working seven days a week and unable keep up with demand. The average wait for a new well, which can cost $5,000 to $10,000, is about three months and lengthening. Many of the new wells are drilled to depths of 300 to 400 feet, replacing much shallower wells dug by backhoes.

Schools, mobile home parks and a number of small towns are struggling to raise money for deeper wells, though there are no guarantees that new wells will yield safe water — or any water at all.

Like nearly every body of water in this state, Sebago Lake — a trillion- gallon lake that is the second largest in Maine — is about six feet below what is normal in the summertime. Boat ramps empty into mud flats. A ferry is mired in mud. Docks have collapsed at marinas, where there is not enough water to launch boats.

Sebago Lake is the principal water source for 171,000 people in and around Portland, the state's largest city. The intake for the city's water system is near the bottom of the lake, and experts say that neither the supply nor the quality of water for Portland is likely to be affected by the drought. Most major towns in Maine also have secure water supplies, at least for the coming summer.

For rural Mainers, though, hardships caused by wells running low are almost certain to get worse. Maine is the third-most-rural state in the nation, with 55 percent of its 1.3 million people living in rural areas.

"We have never been this low before, so who knows what is going to happen?" said Tom Hawley, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Portland. "We are going to see many, many more wells going dry this spring, unless we get several months of above-normal rains. I don't see that happening."

Increased rainfall seems to be in store for some Eastern states, including Maine, the Weather Service said today. But it is not predicted to be enough to end the drought.

Unlike many other states, Maine has few large aquifers to provide an insurance policy against long-term drought, said Mr. Lent at the Geological Survey. When winter betrays Maine, he said, there is little that anyone can do.

For all the alarm one hears in the voices of water experts in Maine, Mainers themselves are not making much of a fuss. Few are clamoring for help from the government. Only 48 low-interest loans from the United States Department of Agriculture have been given to low-income Maine residents to drill new wells, although there is money available to help many more.

Rather than complain to the government — or to anyone, for that matter — people here seem to be willing to wait out their problems. That is precisely the philosophy shaping the long, grim winter at the home of David and Diane Deering, who live in the woods of southern Maine, not from Hollis.

"It is kind of a Maine thing to bear up without saying anything," said Mrs. Deering, 57, a caseworker in the southern Maine office of Senator Olympia J. Snowe. "You just kind of do what you have to do. We don't want to put money into a new well. We feel we can just persevere."

The Deerings' well, which is 25 feet deep, went dry last October and their water pump burned out. The well had produced enough water during the past 30 years to raise three daughters, all of whom like long showers. So the Deerings decided to fix the water pump and do the Maine thing: Wait patiently for the well to produce water. It has, but only in a dribble.

The Deerings have learned to live with it. They eliminated dish washing and laundry in the house. They take showers that last no longer than two minutes. They flush the toilet once a day. The Deerings' two oldest daughters are grown and showering elsewhere, so the burden of being a stoic teenage Mainer has fallen exclusively on their youngest, Emily, a high school senior.

"My parents are, like, O.K., we'll just wait it out," said Emily, who plays field hockey, basketball and lacrosse and whose showering requirements dwarf those of her parents. "You try to keep it quiet at school that you are not taking as many showers as you'd like."

She is surviving, Emily said, by showering at the home of friends with deeper wells.

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