Water Sustainability in NH

LFDA Editor

New Hampshire has a vast network of waterways, with 18 miles of coastline, nearly 1,000 lakes, and 17,000 miles of rivers. But with the population increasing and the integrity of our water system's infrastructure declining, the availability and sustainability of our state's water is at risk. 

Aside from needing a potable water source for our daily lives, New Hampshire relies on quality water to sustain agriculture, wildlife, industries, and recreation. A balanced approach to water sustainability should protect the environment and public interest, while at the same time managing property values, water fees, and our natural water supply.

Poor Infrastructure

An aging system for water distribution means leakage of pipes, disruptions in availability, and potentially unsanitary conditions. According to a 2012 report from the New Hampshire Local Government Center, many New Hampshire towns and cities have water infrastructure dating to the 1800s.

With the state acquiring new water users every day, and each user requiring upwards of 75 gallons per day, the system is also overloaded.

However, updating water infrastructure is expensive.  When she declared "Drinking Water Week" in May 2013, Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) noted that drinking water and wastewater infrastructure need roughly $3 billion in repairs and upgrades over the next decade.

Historically New Hampshire towns have often had assistance from state and federal government in paying for water infrastructure upgrades.  However, funds from the federal Clean Water Act are long gone, and after the 2008 recession the state government put a moratorium on infrastructure grants in order to balance the state budget.  The budget passed in June 2013 restores some of those infrastructure grants, but municipalities still share a large portion of costs.

Some towns also argue that the federal government should loosen clean water restrictions to lower the cost of water infrastructure upgrades.

Weather and the Environment

A 2012 report from Environment New Hampshire found that the frequency of "extreme rain events" in New Hampshire has more than doubled in the past fifty years.  The sea level is also rising, although there is debate over how quickly the level is changing.

New Hampshire's aging water infrastructure is not equipped to deal with the extra water from these environmental changes.  The use of impervious surfaces in construction, notably pavement, has also decreased the natural ability of the land to re-absorb water.  During heavy storms, overflow and run-off leads to water pollution, not to mention flooding.

Municipalities must decide which is less costly: updating storm-water infrastructure, or managing flooding and water pollution after extreme weather.

Water Rights

Water is also becoming a globalized commodity. Hampton Water Co. and Pennichuck Water Works in Nashua have each been purchased by international companies, clouding the issue of who actually owns the state's water.

Moreover, because water does not respect political or municipal boundaries, water issues have to be addressed at the watershed level.  A watershed is an area of land that shares a common water course, and often includes multiple towns and cities. Those towns and cities may have independent and even conflicting water interests.

Regardless of the town they live in, private property owners who want to use water face regulations at the local, state, and federal levels regarding the building and use of private water sources. Water becomes a property rights issue in this context.

The Shoreland Protection Act provides an example of the tension between waterfront property owners and environmentalists.  Passed in 2007, the Shoreland Protection Act applied strict rules to the use and development of the land located from the shoreline to 250 feet inland. Permits from the state were required for all construction, excavation and filling.  Supporters argued the Shoreland Protection Act's uniform standards were necessary to protect clean, potable water - and therefore property values - across the state.  Opponents argued that the regulations on paving, tree-trimmings, and even removing poison ivy were far too restrictive, and made shorefront land unappealing to buyers. The Legislature worked with property owners to significantly revise the Shoreland Protection Act (now named the Shoreland Water Quality Protection Act) in 2011 and 2013.

The Water Sustainability Commission

The Governor's Water Sustainability Commission was established on April 22, 2011, in order to "identify strategies and management measures for ensuring that the quality and quantity of New Hampshire's water resources in 25 years are as good as or better than they are today."  The Commission published their report in December 2012.

The final report of the commission uncovered the following observations, as reported by the Union Leader

  • New Hampshire's population of roughly 1.3 million is putting a lot of pressure on water resources
  • New Hampshire needs to plan for a huge demographic shift. The "silver tsunami" of retiring baby-boomers wants to be near the lakes. This shift will increase human impact and run-off potential.
  • The state's water-carrying infrastructure is nearing its expiration date. Most water systems were built in the early 1900s and after the Clean Water Act in 1972.  Repairs are estimated at $2.9 billion.

Current Water Concerns

The city of Portsmouth is currently working with the Pease Development Authority and the United States Air Force to expedite the process of designing a water treatment system to remove contaminants in three drinking water supplies. Perfluorochemical compounds (PFCs) were discovered in the Smith, Harrison, and Haven wells at Pease International Tradeport (a former Air Force base) in 2014. The Air Force and the Environmental Protection Agency suspect the contaminants came from a firefighting foam once used on the base. People who work at Pease and children attending a day care there presented with elevated levels of contaminants in their blood in tests conducted after the discovery of the well contaminations.

The city and the Pease Development Authority reached an agreement with the Air Force in April 2016 to install a carbon filter system to treat the wells; the Air Force will reimburse the city up to $58,700 for the carbon filter pilot system and $831,000 for the installation and demonstration project.

In December 2015, New Hampshire was awarded $23 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade sewage plants and drinking water systems.

In March 2016, the chemical PFOA was detected in private wells in several towns in New Hampshire. One source of the chemical has been traced to the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics facility in Merrimack; the state Department of Environmental Services took water samples from within a one-mile radius of the facility and found PFOA of various concentrations.

The EPA subsequently announced a lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals PFOA or PFOS in drinking water; previous provisional levels were 400 parts per trillion for PFOA and 200 parts per trillion for PFOS. 

LEGISLATIVE HISTORY

Passed House and Senate

Appropriates roughly $3.5 million to the Department of Environmental Services over the next two fiscal years to fund eligible drinking water and wastewater projects under the state aid grant program. The bill also appropriates $5 million for a loan to address drinking water contamination in Amherst.

Tabled in the House

Prohibits the introduction of fluoride into the drinking water of the state. According to the Department of Environmental Services, there are 10 municipalities serving 289,300 people that fluoridate their drinking water.

Signed by Governor

Excludes grass from the definition of "impervious surfaces" under the Shoreland Water Quality Protection Act.

Killed in the Senate

Establishes a committee to study the tax characterization of stormwater utility fees.

Passed House and Senate

Requires the Department of Environmental Services (DES) to send an updated list of "impaired waters" to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which will impact municipal storm and wastewater system regulations. The Senate amended the bill to instead establish a commission to determine if DES should take over the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) from the EPA, and if so, to recommend a fee structure that would pay for DES to manage permits. According to the DES website, "The NPDES permit program addresses water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants to the waters of the United States."

Tabled in the Senate

Establishes the Stormwater Management and Flood Resilience Fund to provide grants to public and non-public organizations for stormwater pollution monitoring, treatment and outreach. This bill appropriates $400,000 to the fund.

Passed House and Senate

Allows municipalities to adopt a program for tax and other relief for coastal properties subject to storm surge, sea level rise, and extreme precipitation, under the community revitalization tax relief program.

Passed House

Expands the authority of selectmen to restrict outdoor water usage to include commercial property.

In Committee

Requires municipalities to connect private wells to public water systems in the event a private well has a 10% increase in man-made containments in a year. The bill was amended to instead require a "responsible party" to monitor any contaminated water supplies and provide clean drinking water if necessary.

Killed in the House

Appropriates $2,228,692 to the Department of Environmental Services to fund twelve eligible and completed drinking water and wastewater projects under the state aid grant program.

Died in Conference Committee

Allows the Department of Environmental Services (DES) to make rules regarding air pollution and the deposit of such pollutants on soils and water. DES states entities with such devices would have to pay an application fee and an emissions-based permit fee. The Senate amended the bill to also require DES to set a limit on PFCs in water that takes into account the best available studies to protect public health, "particularly prenatal and early childhood health." The House and Senate did not agree on a final version of the bill.

In Committee

Renames the Winnipesaukee River Basin Program Replacement fund to the Reserve Account. This bill also expands the types of water pollution control projects that can receive funding from the Reserve Account.

Signed by Governor

Establishes a commission to study long term goals and requirements for drinking water in the seacoast area.

In Committee

Requires the Department of Environmental Services to use exposure scenarios in children and other vulnerable populations to determine criteria for emerging contaminants in drinking water.

In Committee

Identifies and defines different types of wetlands protected under the Wetlands Protection Act.

Killed in the Senate

Establishes a committee to study the responsibility of a person who makes drinking water non-potable through pollution.

Passed House

Establishes a commission to study the transfer of authority from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to the state Department of Environmental Services regarding the issuance of the New Hampshire municipal separate storm sewer system general permit (MS4)

Killed in the House

Modifies the penalties for violations of municipal ordinances and bylaws concerning sewage or stormwater. For example, this bill would allow municipalities to ask the court to bill the violator for expenses related to enforcement.

Signed by Governor

Requires several state agencies to conduct an audit of laws governing coastal regions related to flood preparations.

Signed by Governor

Allows money from Winnipesaukee River Basin Program (WRBP) funds to be spent on the most cost effective operation of the WRBP system.

Signed by Governor

Requires the Winnipesaukee River advisory board to give a recommendation to the governor and executive council on contracts.

Killed in the House

Suspends the water and air pollution control facilities property tax exemption, and allocates resulting revenues to various local infrastructure projects, such as sewer improvements.

Signed by Governor

Appropriates money to complete various drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects under the state aid grant program. The Senate amended the bill to also address funding for the Police Standards and Training Council and the Liquor Commission.

Killed in the Senate

Changes the referendum procedure for public water systems so that a petition requires the number of voters equal to at least 20 percent of the number of ballots cast in all of the towns served by a water system at the last regular municipal election.

Interim Study

Establishes the Waterways Education Fund to educate New Hampshire property owners about improving the quality of the state's waterways, and to dispense monetary awards to private property owners who, through outstanding projects on their property, protect or improve the quality of the state's waterways.

Tabled in the House

Changes the civil penalty for violation of local wastewater and storm water ordinances.

Signed by Governor

Revises the definition of protected instream flow.

Signed by Governor

Makes various changes to the rivers management and protection program.

Killed in the Senate

Changes funding of state aid grants from the State Operating Budget to the State Capital Budget.

Signed by Governor

Moves funding for a comprehensive monitoring program for the Piscataqua region estuaries from the Department of Administrative Services to the Department of Environmental Services.

Signed by Governor

Requires the Department of Environmental Services to update a report on coastal flooding trends every five years.

Signed by Governor

Establishes the Coastal Marine Natural Resources and Environment Commission to investigate, monitor, and propose prevention and mitigation strategies for emerging environmental threats in coastal and Great Bay waters, including but not limited to warming of waters.

Signed by Governor

Establishes the Drinking Water and Groundwater Trust Fund and the New Hampshire Drinking Water and Groundwater Advisory Commission.

Signed by Governor

Keeps certain fees in the Shoreland Protection Act.

Tabled in the House

Establishes a commission to study the effects of ocean acidification on commercially harvested species grown along the New Hampshire coast.

Signed by Governor

Establishes a committee to study funding of state aid grants for infrastructure projects.  Prior to amendment, this bill was written to end a moratorium on state aid grants for infrastructure projects.

Signed by Governor

Requires the Department of Environmental Services to make recommendations concerning the lease of certain state-owned submerged lands in the Great Bay estuary for the purpose of shellfish restoration.

Tabled in the Senate

Appropriates $1,500,000 in 2016 and $1,500,000 in 2017 to water supply land protection costs under the state aid grant program.

Tabled in the Senate

Appropriates $200,000 to the Department of Environmental Services for the purpose of restoring and protecting waters of the southeast watershed in accordance with EPA guidelines.

Signed by Governor

Authorizes municipalities to regulate stormwater in order to comply with federal and state laws and regulations.

Killed in the House

Establishes a clean water tax credit against the business profits tax and/or the business enterprise tax for business organizations and business enterprises that contribute to a nonprofit environmental organization which award grants to homeowners replacing septic systems.

Killed in the House

Appropriates $542,672 to reimburse towns for Massachusetts' portion of the Merrimack River flood control compact and the Connecticut River flood control compact. Massachusetts refuses to pay.

Tabled in the House

Requires the Department of Environmental Services to consider impacts to wetland buffers before granting permits for filling and dredging in wetlands.

Killed in the House

Appropriates $9,017,024 in 2016 and $7,641,311 in 2017 to the state aid grant program for water pollution control and public water systems.

Killed in the House

Requires bottled water labels to indicate the source of water.

Signed by Governor

Establishes a commission to recommend legislation to prepare for projected sea level rise and other coastal and coastal watershed hazards.

Signed by Governor

Allows municipalities to develop regional water plans with other municipalities.

Signed by Governor

Allows multiple municipalities to form water and/or sewer utility districts.

Signed by Governor

Modifies the Shoreland Water Quality Protection Act of 2011. This bill aims to encourage homeowners to increase shrubs, groundcover, and the number of tress on shoreland.

Tabled in the Senate

Appropriates $4,671,754 in 2014 and $4,161,595 in 2015 to the state aid grant program for water pollution control and public water systems.

Killed in the House

Appropriates $4,671,754 in 2014 and $4,161,595 in 2015 to the state aid grant program for water pollution control and public water systems.

Should NH invest more in water infrastructure?

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Issue Status

In 2016, PFOA and PFOS contaminants were found in drinking water around the state, including Amherst, Bedford, Litchfield, Merrimack, and Portsmouth.

For the 2017 legislative session, Rep. Mindi Messmer, who co-founded the New Hampshire Safe Water Alliance, has requested HB 431, passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law on June 16, which aims to establish a commission to look at long-term goals and requirements for drinking water in the seacoast area. Rep. Jeb Bradley requested SB 57, passed by the Senate and the House, which appropriates $3.6 million to the DES to fund eligible drinking water and wastewater projects under the state aid grant program. 

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