By Carolyn Camilleri
By Carolyn Camilleri
A loan program in some municipalities of Nova Scotia provides qualified homeowners with help if their wells run dry.
Drought conditions and dry wells have been plaguing residential well owners in southwest Nova Scotia for the past three years. The worst of the three, 2016, is a year that won’t be quickly forgotten. In Yarmouth County, it was the driest summer since 1880.1
“People were in dire straits. They had no water. There were fire halls that opened up their doors for people to bring their water coolers to get filled,” says Arthur Jefferson of DJ’s Well Drilling Ltd. “Laundromats were just jam-packed. I know some people that drove an hour and a half to another county to do laundry because the wait time would be less.”
“It really got us on the map in 2016,” he adds.
The drought has been focused on one geographic area that includes Shelburne, Barrington, Argyle and Yarmouth municipalities.
“They’re calling the weather in this one part of the province a ‘banana belt effect,’ ”
Jefferson says. “They’re not getting the precipitation the rest of the province is getting: it’s just basically going around them, or pushing north, or blowing out to sea.”
Some days, it would be pouring everywhere else throughout the day, until he got closer to Yarmouth and the skies would be clear and the pavement dry.
“I’m talking probably a half-hour’s drive difference – a half-hour away, it’d be getting heavy rains, and where I was heading to – just nothing. The sun would be shining.”
This past summer has been almost as bad.
“It’s been alarmingly dry up until about two months ago, and it hasn’t stopped raining since,” Jefferson says [in late November], noting that while the surface is wet with the recent rain, that has also been part of the pattern the past couple of years.
Homeowners in the area needed help – and help came in the form of a municipal loan program, spearheaded by MLA Chris d’Entremont, whose home riding is Argyle-Barrington. He talks about how the program got underway.
“We didn’t get any rain in southwest Nova Scotia at all,” d’Entremont says. “A lot of the water used for consumption in southwest is from mostly dug wells. Some of them are old and not very deep. What we were starting to see is that people just didn’t have the means to make it deeper or drill a well. There was no mechanism in the province that could actually help them out with it.”
D’Entremont says the route the province decided to go with the loan program isn’t necessarily the route he would have chosen, but at least there is now a route.
“It’s not the best kind of program, but at least it was something,” he says.
Chris Frotten is currently the chief administrative officer in the Municipality of the District of Barrington. In 2016, he worked at the Municipality of Argyle, where the loan program was first launched. The municipalities of Yarmouth and Barrington followed very closely behind. He explains that the province legislated the capability of municipal units to loan money to residents for this purpose, but that it’s up to each municipal unit to determine whether or not they would like to provide a program.
“It’s very similar to the PACE [Property Assessed Clean Energy] program, which allows municipal units to loan money to residents for energy upgrades to their homes,” Frotten says. “They tried to mimic the same type of process as they had with the PACE program.”
In the municipality of Argyle, it is called the Well Upgrade Lending Program and is described online as “a municipally funded program which allows residents to borrow money from the Municipality to construct a new dug or drilled well or upgrade an existing well that is required to source water.” The loans of up to $15,000 per residential property are repayable over a maximum period of 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 3.5 per cent. To be eligible, property owners must not be in default of any municipal taxes, rates, or charges, and the property must be owner occupied within the Municipality of Argyle. Other types of properties‚ including seasonal homes and businesses, do not qualify for the program.
How it works is simple: the property owner fills out an application and provides a quote for the work. Once approved, the owner agrees to the lending terms and work proceeds with the final invoice submitted for payment by the municipality.
The program in Barrington is similar, except for a couple of notable differences. Here it is called a Water Supply Upgrade Lending Program, and in addition to new or upgraded dug or drilled wells, the program could include the installation of cisterns, water from fog systems, greywater collection, or other containers installed to supply, use, and conserve water. Homeowners in Barrington provide three quotes for the work, with the homeowner making the final choice, for a maximum loan of $10,000. The low interest rates and 10-year repayment plan are the same as in Argyle.
The programs have been getting a good response from homeowners, with this past summer seeing the most applications. Marsha d’Eon, the director of finance for the Municipality of Argyle, took over the program from Chris Frotten in summer 2018. She says approximately 15 to 17 homeowners applied last summer.
“We had a public meeting inviting everybody to come for information, and they could fill out the application form at that time,” says d’Eon, who added that it gave the municipality an idea of how many property owners were interested. Of that number, d’Eon says, seven people are now on the program.
“From the feedback I received from the people who actually went through and had their well dug or drilled, they were saying how it was a good process, it was easy for them, and it was relieving for them,” d’Eon says. “They seemed to be pleased. I haven’t heard any negative feedback.”
Well drillers also noticed an increase in calls last summer from customers on the loan program. Jefferson says the first year the program was in place, he did a few under the loan program, but “this year, it was full out: A lot of people were running dry again.”
Jefferson notes that more of the municipalities seem to be getting on board, and that most of the jobs were for new drilled wells – with new pump systems and pressure tanks – to replace dug wells that had gone dry. While the dug wells in the area are reliant on the seasonal weather for recharge, the area’s aquifers are much deeper – 300 to 400 feet – and well protected.
“They’re older aquifers, and they’re going to be around even during the next drought,” Jefferson says. “Any of the wells that we drilled, I don’t think we went overly deeper than usual. I didn’t see any difference in the depth of the drilled wells, but the dug wells – we had some people who had an inch or two inches of water left in their well.”
Ralph Jacobs of Bluenose Well Drilling also noted the increased interest in the program.
“We are getting more and more calls from homeowners looking for a quote to have a new well drilled or to have theirs deepened and putting the cost through the loan program,” Jacobs says, “Shallow aquifers are starting to dry up because of lack of rainfall; therefore, customers are having to drill deeper to find more water.”
But money is an issue in some cases, and Jacobs believes the program is helping homeowners. “Especially the elderly who are on a fixed income and have been dealing with a shortage of water,” Jacobs says.
However, the program isn’t available everywhere it is needed.
“I was in touch with Halifax Regional Municipality, and their response was ‘Currently, such programs are administered by individual municipalities,’ ” Jacobs says. “It would be nice to have the programs in more municipalities for sure.”
Jordan Rogers of Valley Well Drillers, and current president of the Nova Scotia Ground Water Association, says the customers he has had go through the program were happy with it, but says, “It would be a great thing to have provincewide.”
This is an issue d’Entremont also comments on: “Even within our southwest zone, there are some municipalities that did not participate in the program, which is unfortunate, because if we do hit another drought, then some people will not have access to it and some people will. They’re relatively neighbours in most cases. That’s going to create a bit of a challenge.”
Rogers comments on that other key difference: “The only downside is some municipalities had a cap of $10,000, which does not usually cover the cost of the well and pump hookup.”
Jefferson echoes this concern. “In some of the areas, we’re going two, three, 400 feet even, before we get into a good aquifer, and you’re pushing over that limit of $10,000 easily, because by the time you drill it and put a pump in it, and especially the taxes – because that includes the HST – and boy, it’s hard,” he says. “Some of the municipalities won’t even accept the quote if it’s not under that 10.”
Another concern with the lower cap is hiring qualified people to do the work. Jefferson says that while almost all the drillers in the province are certified, it is a different situation with pump installers. He encourages everyone to ask for credentials.
“Make sure they’re certified because the last thing you want to do is go through all this and have something done wrong,” Jefferson says. “It’s going to come back to haunt you. If something goes wrong, who’s going to be held accountable? I’m not sure how it’s going to fall with the municipalities.”
Especially when the municipalities are paying the bill.
Jefferson says the topic was brought up at their provincial ground water association meeting with the hope it would lead to a discussion with the union of municipalities.
Meanwhile, well owners and drillers are waiting to see what the weather will do in 2019.
“I do have some people who have applied that have said they’re going wait until the spring, because people are seeing that this may become a pattern, so they don’t want to go through it again,” d’Eon says. “If we have another dry summer, I’m definitely anticipating people to come forward.”
Frotten comments that discussions are continuing ahead of next year’s unknown weather. “We’re still in conversation with the province, along with our neighbouring municipal units to determine some future, more longer-term solutions.”
And if it does happen again in 2019, there is hope of help – provided the well owners are in the right municipality.
1Kalin Mitchell, “Why was Nova Scotia’s summer so hot and dry?” CBC News. Sept. 6, 2016. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/summer-weather-records-heat-halifax-yarmouth-dry-wells-kalin-mitchell-1.3138111).
Real-time well monitoring in N.S.
When the drought occurred in Nova Scotia in 2016, the existing provincial ground water observation network was unable to monitor changing conditions because it is not a real-time system. The cost to convert the existing network to real time is high at about $2,500 per site, according to an article written by John Drage, a hydrogeologist in the Geological Survey Division of the N.S. Department of Energy and Mines. The article appeared in both The Geological Record1 and the fall 2018 issue of “Water Talk,” the newsletter for the NSGWA.
The article describes a new real-time drought-monitoring program for shallow aquifers; pilot testing in Nova Scotia began in 2017. The new devices have been designed to be affordable, with each one costing about $200 to build with an annual operating cost of about $5 for batteries. The program expanded in 2018 and invited well owners across the province to volunteer their wells to be part of the network. Ten sites around the province are being monitored (three sites are offline pending hardware upgrades).
“Plans for 2019 are to add a few more monitoring locations to the current network, improve the design of the monitoring devices, and continue to develop a cellphone version of the device,” Drage says.
To see the network, go to https://nsdnr.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=6bf832eb26ac4b1a8d9f757bea61541e
For more information on this Nova Scotia program, email John.Drage@novascotia.ca.
1John Drage, A New Real Time Drought-Monitoring Network for Shallow Aquifers in Nova Scotia. The Geological Record, Volume 5, No. 2, Page 4, Spring 2018. Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources.
Carolyn Camilleri is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and content strategist. She has been writing for consumer and trade magazines, as well as businesses and organizations, for more than 15 years.