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Water Keeps Tourism Dollars Flowing
Published Monday, July 24, 2017

There’s no escaping the fact that NH’s tourism economy is inextricably linked to water. New Hampshire contains around 1,000 lakes and ponds and 10,000 miles of freshwater rivers and streams. These bodies of water serve as wildlife habitats and as summer playgrounds for boating, fishing, camping and swimming. They also support commercial activities and,  of course, are a source of drinking water.

The state’s freshwaters are ranked as some of the cleanest and healthiest in the country, though growing concerns about the pollution of drinking water in southern NH and recent months-long drought conditions show this could all change.

Water Pollution Concerns
The Granite State is facing a problem with high levels of perfluorochemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid in drinking water. Over the past few years, drinking water in Amherst, Bedford, Greenland, Merrimack, Portsmouth, Rochester and Salem tested positive for above-average levels of PFC that had leaked into the groundwater supply—in some cases, through improper industrial waste disposal.

Multiple studies about the possible link between many types of cancers and PFCs are not conclusive, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified them as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” As a result, NH found itself in an unwanted spotlight.

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich’s visit to Merrimack garnered national attention. Residents in Amherst, Bedford and Merrimack were afraid to drink their well water and opted for bottled water instead. In an emotional town hearing in Greenland, mothers begged council members for safe water for their children. All of this was happening against the backdrop of the dire situation in Flint, Michigan, in which a change in water source resulted in nearly 100,000 cases of lead poisoning—most of them young children.

“Even if it turns out that the drinking water is safe in these New Hampshire communities, there is now a perception that our water supply has become degraded, and that’s a potential problem,” says Michele Tremblay, interim co-chair of NH Lives on Water, a nonprofit consortium of water protection groups, water-dependent businesses and local government leaders. “Who is going to accept a job or move a business to Flint, Michigan knowing that the water is unsafe for their family to drink? It would be a mistake to think that can’t happen here.”

The high-profile PFC groundwater contamination incidents in NH led to legislation being introduced to allow NH DES to adopt groundwater standards that are more stringent than federal standards. One of those bills, HB485, failed to pass the House. But HB463, which allows DES to make rules regarding air pollution and the deposit of those pollutants on soil and water and regulate devices that emit that pollution, passed the House and the Senate. Prior to the Senate vote, Jim Roche, president of the Business and Industry Association, issued an op-ed piece urging the Legislature not to over-regulate PFCs. “Unfortunately, legislation proposed this session related to the emerging group of perfluorochemicals (PFCs) suggests an emotional rush to enhance regulation and oversight, rather than a measured, calculated response to the evolving understanding of the science around these chemicals,” Roche wrote. He says while the high profile groundwater contamination sites that emerged in the past couple of years were unexpected, “it soon became clear that existing federal and state regulations are more than suitable for addressing the associated environmental impacts.”  

NH’s Dry Spell
There are also other water challenges. In 2016, NH experienced a drought, and by some accounts, a historic one. Lawn watering bans went into effect and wells ran dry. Rockingham and Hillsborough counties faced extreme drought, while the rest of the state saw severe conditions.

During high foliage season, Winnipesaukee Cruise lines had to eliminate a key stop at Wolfeboro Harbor due to dangerously low water levels. Canobie Lake Park in Salem was also affected. “As part of Canobie Lake Park’s water conservation efforts, we stopped using our decorative fountains throughout the property and followed lawn-watering restrictions while the town of Salem was under a water use reduction program [last year],” says Chris Nicoli, a spokesperson for Canobie Lake Park.

The Boston Tea Party ride at Canobie Lake Park. Courtesy photo.

While NH hasn’t reached the water scarcity levels of California, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. “While we have had a wet winter and spring, we have not fully made up for the drought in terms of groundwater,” says Tom O’Brien, president of the NH Lakes Association. “Recharging those depleted groundwater levels could take years.”

“It’s concerning that we don’t take more lessons from California,” says Ted Diers, administrator at the Watershed Management Bureau of the NH Department of Environmental Services (DES). “The biggest portion of water use in New Hampshire that is discretionary is outdoor landscape watering. Yet, even after going through a drought, we see very little talk about reducing that portion. It’s a little crazy that we spend millions of dollars to treat water to be the best quality possible for public health, then we intentionally spill it all over the ground.”

A bill, HB173, was passed by the House that would allow select boards to restrict both residential and commercial outdoor lawn watering during droughts, but still be able to grant exceptions to the watering ban. As of press time, the bill had been rereferred to the Senate for consideration.  

Revenue: What’s at Stake
What kind of economic impact could the degradation of NH’s water have on tourism? The data is dated but telling. According to the 2003 report, Estimates of Select Economic Values of New Hampshire Lakes, Rivers, Streams and Ponds—commissioned by the Lakes, Rivers, Streams and Ponds Partnership, a coalition of state organizations and nonprofits, and conducted by Plymouth State University—an estimated $379 million is generated by those who fish, boat or swim in NH freshwaters, which adds up to about 26 percent of all summer spending in NH. That’s more revenue than Bike Week in Laconia and the NASCAR races at Loudon. And a 2012 study by nonprofit Outdoor Industry reveals that NH’s tourism economy contributes 49,000 jobs, $1.2 billion in wages and $293 billion in taxes and revenue.

According to another report from the Partnership published in 2007, The Economic Impact of Potential Decline in New Hampshire Water Quality, revealed that “almost half to two-thirds of swimmers, boaters and anglers say they would decrease the number of intended visits they make to a particular site if they perceived any degradation in water clarity and purity.”

Amy Landers, executive director at the Lakes Region Tourism Association, says that tourists are savvier than ever when it comes to environmental concerns. “What’s so unique about New Hampshire as a destination, especially when compared to other states with lots of lakes, is that there is a great deal of variety here. Visitors can stay at the lake, but in less than an hour, they can be at the ocean or in the mountains,” she says. “That’s a big draw, but the purity and the pristine nature of our lakes is also part of that package. We field many calls from people who are thinking about coming to the Lakes Region for their vacation, and many times they ask about the cleanliness of the lakes.”  

Many NH attractions depend on water for their operations, including water and amusement parks and ski areas. “Water parks recycle most of their water. The bigger concern there is to make sure that public health is maintained through good operational practices,” explains Diers of DES. “Ski resorts use a lot of water. However, the vast majority of that water drains back into the ground once the spring
melt occurs.”

For the ski industry in NH, each year is a race to be the first resort to open the most trails for the season, whether Mother Nature cooperates or not. Most NH ski areas plan to make their own snow all season long and know exactly how much water they need to do it. They have permits from the state that limit their potential impact on streams and lakes during the winter. It’s costly to pump water uphill, so ski areas need to be as efficient as possible with their snowmaking.

“Every gallon of water we pump for snowmaking costs us money. We’ve made massive investments in energy efficient systems that conserve water, just as a regular course for the cost of doing business in our industry,” says Kris Blomback, general manager of Pat’s Peak Ski Area in Henniker. “We’ve also graded our slopes so they require less snow throughout the season.”

Snowmaking at Pat's Peak Ski Area in Henniker. Courtesy photo.

Diers points out that it’s the businesses built around bodies of water—marinas, boat dealerships, campgrounds and hospitality businesses—that stand to lose the most if water quality degrades. “The worst thing for a lake-reliant business would be for that lake to turn green from algae, or get posted for cyanobacteria blooms,” he says. “Fishing is generally reliant on clean water, and that is a huge part of the recreational economy. The challenge is for the water-reliant attractions not to love the resources to death.”

Stormwater Showdown
Stormwater tops the list of the biggest contributors to the degradation of NH’s water quality, according to Paul Susca, supervisor for the Drinking Water Source Protection Program of the NH Department of Environmental Services.

“I’d say stormwater pollution is responsible for about 80 percent of New Hampshire’s water quality problems,” he says. Stormwater pollution happens when water from rain or melting snow does not soak into the ground. Instead, it flows from rooftops, roads, driveways, gardens and lawns into storm drains. In transit, this water collects animal waste, trash, salt, pesticides, fertilizers, oil and other potential pollutants and then makes its way into nearby lakes and rivers. The more developed a region, the more stormwater pollution.

“The greater the amount of paved surfaces, the less water infiltrates into the ground and the more pollution runs off during rain storms,” Diers explains. “Salt from road de-icing is a huge challenge.

Similarly, the amount of cyanobacteria in a lake is related to the level of development in the surrounding watershed of that lake.”

Gov. Chris Sununu has been responsive to the communities affected by polluted groundwater, working to allocate funds and resources to those towns with contaminated water. However, he has also expressed interest in rolling back federal regulations around treatment of stormwater. Sununu reportedly invited incoming EPA chief Scott Pruitt to NH, asking for his help with what he called “overly burdensome” municipal stormwater regulations, known as MS4.

Striking a Balance
Blomback of Pat’s Peak says water management and regulation is handled mostly at the state level in NH and that is good for the business community. “I don’t think there’s a business owner anywhere who believes they’re under-regulated when it comes to the environment, but at the same time, businesses who depend on water have to guard our resources,” he says. “Working with the New Hampshire DES, as opposed to someone at the federal level, is a big advantage for us in this state, because they have the deep knowledge and expertise of the area to truly know what the local environment can handle.”

Blomback also says DES excels at gathering pertinent data and research to help business owners better understand how a specific project or initiative will directly impact the surrounding water supply.

“We may not always be happy with the decision, but I think the DES is better than most at striking that balance between protecting the environment and helping businesses.”

Mitigating Milfoil
One successful example of residents, conservation activists and business owners coming together to improve water quality involves the NH Lakes Association’s grassroots effort to address the proliferation of invasive species.

“The poster child for aquatic invasive species in NH is the variable water milfoil. It [can grow] so thick that once it enters an environment, you can no longer swim or push a boat through the water,” O’Brien explains. “Our organization has about 800 people in the summer, 500 of whom are volunteers, stationed at about 100 state boat ramps to educate boaters about how to inspect their own boats for any plant fragments. The volunteers show them how to drain out the boat and clean it off to get rid of invasive plants and animals that can disrupt the entire ecosystem of a lake.”

As of last June, the DES reported that milfoil had invaded a total of 71 bodies of water in the state—up from 64 water bodies in 2010. The DES collaborated with several local organizations to evaluate the viability of milfoil seeds, and the research showed that milfoil seeds are “very viable” and have a high regeneration rate, though survival of the seedlings is relatively low. In other words, milfoil spreads quickly, but if caught early, it can be eradicated.

Businesses located on freshwater bodies should have surveys of the water by DES biologists or local volunteers like those trained by the NH Lakes Association. If milfoil does appear in a lake near you, there are several options for mitigating its spread. Hand pulling, diver-­assisted suction harvesting, herbicide treatment or a combination of all of these can be used, depending on the severity of the infestation.

In addition to the boater education campaign, O’Brien’s group, with the NH Marine Patrol and the NH DES, organized sessions to train marine business owners on best practices for cleaning and draining water from recreation vehicles.  

Coming Together
Still, Susca of DES says there is work to be done to unite government, nonprofits and businesses and ensure that NH’s water supply is both clean and abundant for years to come. “It’s been a challenge getting some business owners and water protection groups on the same side,” says Susca. “There is a lot of lingering mistrust on both sides. We hear from some businesses who feel that environmental regulations are too restrictive, but we also hear from water-dependent tourist businesses, residents and environmentalists who say that they’d like to see more regulation.”

EB James, executive director of the Squam Lakes Association, says that NH is well poised to bring all groups together for positive change. “Just about every business in town knows that their success is tied to the health of the watershed, and they’ve been supportive of what we’re trying to do,” he says. “While the approaches may differ, the end goal is the same, whether you’re an environmental scientist, a landowner or someone who runs a business here. As long as all sides can remember that, we can keep the waters here clean and accessible to everyone.”

One place to start finding common ground could be new data. “We have research on what the potential impact and possible loss of revenues are; we’re now trying to convince the decision makers at the state level of what the costs and needs are. But we’ve got to have some recent data and good information that we can share to help them understand what needs to happen next,” says O’Brien.

Tremblay at NH Lives on Water says her group is hoping to make that happen. Several stakeholders in the state and municipal government, water protection nonprofits and business owners are coming together to refresh the results of the previously referenced 2007 studies done by the Lakes, Rivers, Streams and Ponds Partnership, with a deeper dive into the cost of maintaining clean water infrastructure.

“The improvement and ongoing maintenance of our water delivery infrastructure needs to be a top priority. Degradation in the quality of water hurts us all, and industry is not immune to that,” she says.

“We already know that tourism could be negatively affected by poor water quality. The next phase of research will explore what it will cost to address that and make investments in the water infrastructure.”

Six Ways Businesses Can Improve Water Quality

1. Have your water tested.

“If your business relies on a private well, then it’s important to have it tested regularly,” says Paul Susca, supervisor for the Drinking Water Source Protection Program at NH Department of Environmental Services (DES). The NH DES offers several resources on how to get your well water tested at If your business is near a freshwater lake, pond, river or stream, ask the DES to monitor it for invasive plant species like milfoil or bacteria blooms.

2. Landscape with native plants.

Adding more plant life to your building’s landscape increases water infiltration and decreases lawn maintenance. Sticking with native plants helps lessen the possibility of invasive plant species reaching nearby lakes and ponds. “The right landscaping can go a long way toward preventing excess stormwater, as well,” says Tom O’Brien, president of the NH Lakes Association. To download the NH Lakes Association’s free handbook on clean water best practices, visit

3. Enforce a waste disposal policy.
“It comes down to business owners leading by example and making sure their staff does the same,” Susca says. Make sure your waste disposal policy is posted and train employees to never discard trash or yard waste down storm drains or in the street. DES has downloadable handouts for businesses on proper waste disposal at

4. Use lawn chemicals safely.

Always follow label instructions and never apply before rain or watering the lawn, unless directed. When possible, avoid lawn chemicals or opt for non-toxic organic ones.

5. Redirect downspouts to drain rain water onto lawns and gardens instead of paved areas.

This reduces the amount of rain that enters sewer drains and contributes to stormwater pollution.

6. If your business is holding a charity event or fundraiser, skip the “car wash” idea.

“A professional car wash filters and recycles the wastewater; old-fashioned buckets and hoses do not,” explains Michele Tremblay, interim co-chair of NH Lives on Water.

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