Scenes From New England’s Drought: Dry Wells, Dead Fish and Ailing Farms

Center Conway, N.H.--The Saco River flows lazily here, from New Hampshire into Maine, ridged with sandy banks and lush forests, luring eager families in canoes and rowdy flotillas of young adults.

But after a hot, dry summer, a 10-mile canoe trip to Fryeburg, Me., from Center Conway, N.H., this month was interrupted, time and again, by the scrape of boat on sandy riverbed, and the grudging acceptance that the only way to get the canoe across certain stretches of shallow river would be to drag it.

The low river is one of countless signs of dry weather that has settled over much of New England. Conditions are even worse south of the Saco, with the United States Drought Monitor observing “extreme drought” conditions in much of the eastern half of Massachusetts, southeastern New Hampshire and the southern part of Maine.

Some private wells have dried up. Farmers face millions of dollars in lost crops, and federal agricultural officials have declared much of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut a natural disaster area. Parts of rivers have withered into a series of ponds or wide stretches of stone, harming the ecosystems that depend on them. Bears and other wild animals are venturing into human habitats in search of food because there is little in their own.

“We are not used to this in New England,” said Maggie Hassan, the Democratic governor of New Hampshire. Officials in her state and in Massachusetts have issued dire warnings, urging an end to outdoor watering. Many cities and towns have issued restrictions, although not all are mandatory.

Some rain is forecast this week, but the dry summer has taken its toll. A trip through the affected area shows how the region is coping with a dry spell that climatologists say is not expected to fully abate before the end of the year.

Living on Borrowed Water. KINGSTON, N.H.--One day in August, Roxy Moore, 70, went to the faucet to make coffee, and the water trickled to nothing. Her well had gone dry for the first time in the 33 years she had lived here.

Ms. Moore said she did not have the money to dig a new one. So she has lived without running water for more than a month, subsisting on the good will of friends and neighbors. She has perfected a series of small rituals to help her get by.

“You get up. You boil water in the microwave to take your sink bath. You sometimes want to save that water to use it to flush it in the toilet,” said Ms. Moore, who keeps antibacterial hand wipes by the sink and gives her laundry to her nephew.

“It is what it is,” she said. “You’ve got to learn to live this way until God gives us rain.”

Kingston, a town of about 6,000 in this parched stretch of southeastern New Hampshire, has no public water supply. Residents who rely on private wells are strongly encouraged to conserve, but the town’s selectmen, in a state that places a premium on individual rights, have not instituted a mandatory ban.

The town has a spigot outside the fire station for families who no longer have running water. No one is tracking how many people use it, but over an hour on Wednesday night, three people came.

Harry Fairbrother, 53, an engineer, filled a 330-gallon tank that he hooks up to his home. Samuel Mauro, 33, a toy salesman, filled up a few one-gallon water jugs. And Sherri Todd, 63, a cancer survivor with three jobs, filled up plastic buckets for the toilet, and big plastic bottles for drinking.

“Tomorrow will be three weeks” without water, Ms. Todd said, running her hands through her hair. “I just came from my friend’s house to shower, it felt so good.”

Farms on the Edge. GREENLAND, N.H.--Allen Smith is a fifth-generation dairy farmer, who names some of his cows after pasta shapes and has a propensity for saying, “Heck yeah!” But months of drought are weighing on the farm, already reeling from the low price of milk.

Mr. Smith, 55, typically feeds roughly 160 cows with hay and corn from his fields. The corn has grown, but his hayfields--so dry “it sounds like you’re walking in potato chips,” he said--have produced a small fraction of what he needs to get through the winter, and he guesses he will need to spend $300 or $400 per day on feed.

“The expense of that is just astronomical,” said Mr. Smith, who said he would consider selling some cows if he had to.

Nineteen of New Hampshire’s 120 dairy farms have already gone out of business this year, mostly because of low milk prices, and the drought has made it harder for those that survive.

River Becomes ‘Puddles.’ ON THE IPSWICH RIVER--This waterway, a haven for fishing and paddling, and a crucial artery for drinking water that flows through the drought hot spot in northeastern Massachusetts, seems distinctly unlike a river, in parts.

There is no flow over the dam near downtown Ipswich, and much of the riverbed below is exposed, a ribbon of dry rocks and brittle plants mottled with standing pools.

“The river’s now just a series of ponds and puddles,” said Wayne Castonguay, the executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, which measured record low flows in the river all summer.

“It’s been absolutely devastating,” he said. “Virtually all the larger fish in the river have died.” He added that he had counted 1,000 dead fish in a tributary this summer.

Upriver, a popular canoeing area is now a pool of standing water--though outfitters say paddling is still possible on some stretches--with exposed, sandy riverbanks and empty shells of mussels that have long since died.

Trees Lose Their Luster. ACTON, Mass.--Take a mid-September drive through a lush Boston suburb like this one, and something looks different from other years. Some leaves are dropping earlier than usual, and those on some trees, like birch and beech, are turning to dull colors, not their usual brilliant hues.

“It shouldn’t be that yellowish-brown,” Bob Allen, an arborist, said. “It should be more of a vibrant reddish-orange.”

Mr. Allen is in charge of vegetation management at Eversource, the local power company, whose crews are looking for drought-weakened trees as they trim branches around power lines. He pulled over next to a sweet birch tree, and looked at its pale green leaves, ringed with dry brown.

“These leaves are showing a scorching effect from the drought,” he said. “They haven’t really been able to be their full self this year, because of lack of water.”

Fall foliage is a boon to New England’s tourism economy, and while many trees are free of leaf-scorch, any hint of trouble with foliage brings economic anxiety. And drought-weakened trees are more likely to topple during storms, Mr. Allen said.

Millions in Crop Losses. SUDBURY, Mass.--At Siena Farms, on rich river valley soil west of Boston, many shelling peas and fava beans have not survived. Beets dried out while they were still the size of Tic Tacs. Two surface ponds dried up, and farm managers held daily discussions about what to water and what to let go.

“This year was three months, basically all summer long with no rain, and it caught us off guard,” said Chris Kurth, the owner, during an interview at a farmer’s market in Boston. “All told, we’re looking at about a 50 percent crop loss.”

In August, farmers in the state reported $13.6 million in lost crops since April; that number has most likely grown.

Some crops, however, have done fairly well: At the Drumlin Farm, spinach, watermelon and winter squash did well, while tomatoes did well at Siena Farms.

Some fields at Siena Farms sit empty because there is no way to irrigate and there is uncertainty about the forecast. Mr. Kurth is planning to scale back his planting next year, and he has taken the unusual step of asking his regular customers to contribute more to help the farm if they can.

“Plants have an amazing ability to survive in extreme conditions and not just give up and die,” Mr. Kurth said. “Hopefully, us farmers have the same strength in us.”