AUBURN — The Great Falls are pretty paltry these days.
“Look at the rocks,” said Dorothy Ward as she sat with a friend overlooking the scene.
“There’s reeds showing that never showed before,” said Ward, a senior who lives next door and watches the river daily. “It’s sad to see the water dissipating.”
The Androscoggin River, which has a little more than a third of its normal flow for this time of year, is only the most visible sign of a worsening drought. Much of southern and central Maine is suffering from severe or extreme conditions, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
“We’re not yet in a state of emergency, but if conditions continue to worsen, we may have to consider that,” said Bruce Fitzgerald, director of Maine Emergency Management Agency. “Although conservation measures are voluntary at this point, it’s important that everyone take steps to conserve to help prevent worsening conditions.”
Some area farmers are already eligible for federal disaster assistance and many people in central and western Maine with dug wells are coming up dry as groundwater levels decline.
For Rebecca Eugley in Poland, the drought hit home a week ago when pipes from her 12-foot-deep dug well started sputtering before spitting out only muddy water. Then, she said, they went dry.
She said her family “went out and bought a bunch of water” to drink and began filling jugs from a nearby lake so they could flush the toilet and wash up. After “mooching off family and friends” for a few days, Eugley said, they got a portable handheld shower, too.
“We’re just kind of out of luck,” she said, wondering how they will come up with the thousands of dollars needed to replace her well with a drilled one that can deliver a steady supply.
Michael Schaedler, a Jay resident whose well dried up a month ago, is hauling water from Wilson Lake for his animals — which include llamas, goats, geese and ducks — and collecting rainwater to flush toilets. He said he’s not the only one in his boat either.
“It’s a huge drought,” said fishing guide Greg Bostater. “We’re seeing some of the lowest levels ever.”
Water levels at some monitoring stations along Maine’s rivers and streams are at their lowest point in a century, said Nicholas Stasulis of the U.S. Geological Survey’s New England Water Science Center.
“Lakes are low. Rivers are low,” Stasulis said.
In addition, “there’s significantly low groundwater levels,” Robert Marvinney, Maine’s state geologist, said.
Well-drilling firms are swamped as water-deprived residents scramble for relief, he said.
“We’re seeing a very large number of calls (from people with shallow wells) who are either out of water or they fear they’ve very close to running out,” said Ike Goodwin of Goodwin Well & Water in Turner.
“We have three rigs out running full tilt,” Goodwin said. Even so, he said, “We’re not keeping up with the calls.”
At two Sabattus firms — Sunco Pump & Well Drilling and Affordable Well Drilling — the pace has been so hectic that nobody would pause to talk about it.
Goodwin said part of the problem is that a number of smaller well-digging firms “closed their doors and sold their equipment” after the housing boom wound down a decade ago. That means drilling capacity is “significantly reduced” from days past, he said.
Marvinney said drillers generally wind up going 200 to 300 feet down, where water flows through cracks in the ledge rock much more reliably than it does near the surface.
Water levels at or near the surface fluctuate from year to year, occasionally dipping low enough during dry spells to cause problems.
Marvinney said precipitation was down significantly during the winter and spring, which had the effect of lowering water tables.
Parched conditions are continuing. Tom Hawley of the National Weather Service in Gray said, “September rainfall was well below average for the entire state. Many locations in southern Maine received less than one inch for the month.”
It’s most severe in southern Maine, Marvinney said, but the change in water levels has also hit many homeowners who rely on dug wells that usually go down less than 20 feet.
Though many people who once relied on dug wells shelled out for drilled ones following a serious drought in 2001, some who muscled through are facing woes this year, he said.
“This is the worst I’ve seen since 1977,” Goodwin said, when there were many more dug wells in Maine than there are now.
Autumn traditionally has less water than other times of year, with supplies typically replenished by melting snow.
But Stasulis said the lack of water this fall is “pretty significant” because it is so much lower than usual. It will take a lot of rain and snow to catch up, he said.
Many rivers, creeks and lakes are at levels never seen before. “It’s really noticeable,” Stasulis said.
In many places, the water is “really, really shallow” and “probably warmer than usual” as well, given this summer’s record high temperatures, he said.
Bostater, who owns Maine River Guides, said the warm water on the Androscoggin didn’t appear to have harmed fish.
He said they may have been a tad more lethargic than usual in late summer, and it took some adjustments to catch them because the low water was brighter than normal. But they were still there, he said.
Ward said she likes to watch the birds coming up with fish at the falls beside her Auburn home. They’re still doing fine, she said.
Not everyone is.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently declared Cumberland County a primary natural disaster area, making its farmers eligible for low-interest emergency loans as well as those in neighboring counties that include Androscoggin, Oxford and Sagadahoc.
Water levels aren’t yet having a major impact on business.
Catalyst Paper in Rumford hasn’t had any trouble, said Tony Lyons, director of fiber supply for the mill. Since it has the flexibility to draw water from two rivers, the Androscoggin and the Swift, it hasn’t had any shortage, he said.
The Verso paper mill in Jay hasn’t seen any effect either. Kathi Rowzie, a spokeswoman for Verso, said it’s “important to note that most of the river water used by the mill in the papermaking process, approximately 95 percent, is subsequently cleaned and returned to the river.”
The dry weather has actually made it easier for loggers to access woodlots, Lyons said, increasing the supply of logs required to produce paper.
Frank McCutcheon, a flight instructor at Twitchell’s Airport & Seaplane Base in Turner, said he can see from the air that water levels “are definitely lower than normal” but not so much that it has any impact on the airport’s seaplane operations.
The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center doesn’t anticipate any improvement soon. Over the long run, it said, forecasts favor a continued drought in the Northeast.
But, it pointed out, an intensifying drought “becomes less likely as temperatures” and evaporation decrease this time of year.
“We need a big, long-term rain event,” Stasulis said. In the meantime, he said, the only thing to do is hope for wet weather “and try to conserve if you can.”