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Recent rain and floods could affect water for drinking and swimming, NH officials say

Images by John 'K' via Flickr Creative Commons

With New Hampshire still reeling from intense rains and floods, state officials are now warning people that the water in their private wells and local swimming areas could be unsafe.

About half of New Hampshire residents rely on wells as their primary water source. Brandon Kernen, with the drinking water division at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, said if flood waters reached the inside of your well, you should not consume the water until it gets tested for potential contaminants.

“Bacteria is really the first and foremost concern because it's the most probable contaminant during extreme storm events, and it can then have an acute health effect,” Kernen said.

He said people can seek private lab testing, or reach out to the state lab in Concord, which will also offer advice on how to disinfect your well. And you’ll want to be extra careful, he said, while waiting to receive your results, or if bacteria is detected.

"[Residents] should either boil the water or use bottled water until the well's been disinfected, he said. ”[You] can still use it for sanitary purposes, for toilets and bathing, but you do not want to ingest that water if it has been found to have bacteria in it."

E. coli poisoning is one of the potential health consequences of consuming contaminated water, he said.

While stormwater runoff can carry a whole host of toxins into local wells, he also said the recent uptick in precipitation, combined with high temperatures, can cause bacteria that’s already present to increase exponentially.

Kernen also said heavy rains can affect the integrity of your wells.

“Once the flood waters recede, it's really important to have a professional inspect the condition of the well and make sure that it's still safe to operate,” Kernen said.

In terms of local swimming spots, some areas such as Chase Beach, Northwood Beach and French’s Park Beach were all found to have high levels of fecal bacteria this past week.

Michele Condon, who leads the state’s beach inspections, said she’s been especially busy with sampling this week, but she can only test so many places at once.

“We have been getting a lot of calls from the public asking if it's safe to swim,” she said. “Our current recommendations are, ‘If you're in doubt, stay out of the water.’”

Condon has been updating the state’s Healthy Swimming Mapper, which includes advisories and alerts on fecal bacteria and cyanobacteria in local water bodies.

She said fecal bacteria exposure on your skin can cause rashes. But it’s also important to avoid swimming in those waters in case you accidentally consume it, she added.

“It happens more than you think,” she said.

If you want to check the quality of your drinking water: NHDES Be Well Informed Guide

If you want to see updated bacterial advisories in local lakes and beaches: Healthy Swimming Mapper

Adriana (she/they) was a news intern in the summer of 2023, reporting on environment, energy and climate news as part of By Degrees. They graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in June 2023.

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