Protecting the Water We Drink

[The following is a Conway Daily Sun guest column by Ossipee resident Bob Gillette. It appeared on 3/2/11]

When New Hampshire voters in six area towns go to the polls on March 8, they will find important measures on their ballots to protect the safety and purity of a vital natural resource — the water we drink.

If all six towns approve these measures, then for the first time a consistent set of common-sense safeguards against hazardous materials — from chemical solvents to bulk storage of road salt to heating oil and gasoline — will apply to drinking water supplies across the entire watershed shared by Effingham, Freedom, Madison, Ossipee, Sandwich and Tamworth.

In Ossipee and Madison, the proposed zoning amendments are modest updates of well-established drinking water protection ordinances already in place for many years.

The updates in these two towns will mainly add a new, more accurate U.S. Geological Survey map of the main area to be protected — the Ossipee Aquifer , a sub-surface river of pristine water that percolates slowly through shallow beds of sand and gravel stretching from the southern end of Ossipee to Sandwich in the north.

This is the largest, and among the purest, glacial aquifers in the Northeast. It supplies drinking water to some 7,000 people who depend on public water systems in the six towns and thousands more using private wells.

For voters in Effingham, Freedom, Sandwich and Tamworth, entirely new and nearly identical measures on the March 8 ballot offer these towns their first chance to adopt essentially the same protections as those in Madison and Ossipee to guard drinking water supplies from spills of hazardous materials while imposing no undue burden on business.

The groundwater ordinances are carefully limited in scope. They would not apply to residential property , because most households use relatively tiny amounts of hazardous materials (such as gasoline.)

The ordinances also would apply only within the well-head protection areas of public water supplies and along the well-defined path of Ossipee Aquifer’s primary recharge area — not everywhere in the towns.

What would the ordinances do?
Highest-risk activities — chiefly landfills, junkyards, septic sludge disposal lagoons, bulk petroleum terminals, bulk storage of road salt and new gas stations — would be prohibited in drinking water protection areas (as they already are in Ossipee and Madison) unless a local zoning board grants a variance.

Other new or existing businesses using significant amounts of state-defined hazardous materials in the drinking-water protection areas would be required to follow Best Management Practices worked out by the state and industry . For instance, these rules call for keeping hazardous materials in secure storage on a concrete floor to prevent any leaks that do occur from escaping into the soil.

In some cases, businesses with outdoor heating oil tanks sitting on bare ground would be required to put them on a catch-basin. (Texts of the groundwater ordinances can be found on the Lakes Region Planning Commission website at: www.lakesrpc.org/services_resources.asp)

Are these ordinances really necessary?  Unfortunately , yes.
In recent years, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) has found that its own limited inspection and enforcement staff are simply unable to keep up with expanding business use of hazardous materials and accidental leakage into the environment — gasoline and heating oil chief among them. They need the cooperation of local communities.

Something of a wake-up call came in 2003 when the U.S. Geological Survey tested the quality of 225 randomly selected public water wells in Rockingham County and found that 40 percent contained traces of the now-banned gasoline additive MtBE, with concentrations closely related to distance from the nearest gas station.

The clear lesson was that, despite improvements in tank technology and the best efforts of DES inspectors, underground gasoline tanks still leak into groundwater (often as vapor escapes and condenses in the soil as liquid gasoline.) Closer to home, two of six gas stations in Ossipee (both grandfathered under the town’s 1989 drinking water protection ordinance) have sustained serious gasoline leaks in recent years. When leaks like these occur, cleanup is not just a matter of digging up a little soil. Multiple wells must be drilled to pump contaminated water to the surface over a period of years, so the leaked gasoline can be recaptured. The cost can be very high.

Taxpayers, not the gas stations, foot the bill for these recovery operations. Costs at the two Ossipee gas stations now exceed $900,000, drawn from a special state fund supported by the taxes drivers pay at the pump. One of these operations is likely to continue for several more years. (The state’s Oil Discharge and Disposal Cleanup Fund is due to terminate in 2015.)

The fact that six towns have very similar drinking-water protection ordinances on the ballot this year is the result of unusual multi-town cooperation that grew from a simple reality — groundwater follows no political boundaries. We all sip from the same cup.

Two years ago, NHDES developed a model ordinance for local communities that urges towns, first, not to allow highest-risk businesses using large amounts of hazardous materials to locate directly on top of water supplies; and second, to authorize local zoning officers to inspect businesses handling hazardous materials to make sure they’re complying with well-established Best Management Practices.

For more than a year, the six towns have worked with the Lakes Region Planning Commission to adapt the model ordinance to their individual needs and preferences. The Green Mountain Conservation group — a non-confrontational environmental group in our area that focuses on education and water-quality testing — has provided a unique forum for the six towns’ planning boards and conservation commissions to talk to each other.

Years of experience in Ossipee and Madison show that these ordinances impose no significant restraint on business development while adding a new line of defense to protect our drinking water.

In the most important sense, they are pro-business. Clean water , along with great scenery, is crucial to attracting new residents and new businesses to the Lakes Region.

The six towns of the Ossipee Watershed now enjoy some of the purest water in the Northeast. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep it that way.

Robert Gillette is an alternate member of the Ossipee Planning Board.

Protecting the Water We Drink

One thought on “Protecting the Water We Drink

  • March 4, 2011 at 4:04 pm
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    May I quote your last sentence “It’s in everyone’s interest to keep it that way”.
    AMEN!

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