BOSTON >> Restaurants in Worcester and Holden can no longer serve tap water to diners unless specifically asked to do so, a result of the central Massachusetts communities ratcheting up water use restrictions in the face of a deepening drought.
The Worcester Department of Public Works and Parks on Thursday moved the city to a "Stage 3 Drought Emergency" and implemented additional water use restrictions "in order to assure the long term availability of water to meet the critical health, safety and economic needs of the city," DPWP Commissioner Paul Moosey wrote to City Manager Ed Augustus.
The reservoir system that Worcester, Holden, Paxton and parts of West Boylston rely on for drinking water was 55.1 percent full as of Sept. 1, Moosey wrote, and the Sept. 1 average is 81.7 percent full.
Residents in those communities are as of Thursday also banned from all outdoor watering, except for using a watering can to water plants by hand, and are prohibited from using water to wash cars, clean driveways, decks, sidewalks or filling swimming pools, the city said.
More than two months since Massachusetts' official drought declaration, the task force charged with guiding the state's response on Thursday recommended the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs boost its conservation efforts in two parts of the state due to worsening conditions and a forecast for more dry weather.
The Drought Management Task Force recommended that EEA Secretary Matthew Beaton move the southeastern part of the state from the "watch" category into the "warning" category, and shift Cape Cod and the islands from "advisory" to "watch." The task force recommended keeping the other regions of the state in their current categories.
Massachusetts has been under its own official drought declaration since July 1 and the arid conditions have been blamed for contributing to wild fires, an outbreak of gypsy moths, higher rates of ant infestation, smaller than usual apples, loss of crops, and an elevated population of mosquitoes able to carry West Nile virus.
"I don't care what part of the state you're from, we are at an unprecedented level of drought for Massachusetts," Beaton said. "Every corner of the state is feeling it at some level, some more than others."
Some advocates from watershed groups said the state is not moving quickly enough to address the problems posed by the drought and to push water conservation messages.
"What's very frustrating about this discussion in general is our streams are really dry all over the state of Mass. and have been since July. For us, this really feels like we're already in an emergency from the point of view of rivers," Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said. "There isn't really much we can do about the weather but what we can do is change our non-essential water use. But until there is an emergency declared by the state, there doesn't seem to be much difference between advisory and warning."
Beaton is expected to act on the task force's recommendations by Monday, though the recommendations are not binding.
Some parts of the state saw near-normal levels of rainfall during August and streamflows began to rebound in central and western Massachusetts, according to Jonathan Yeo from DCR's Office of Water Resources.
"Generally though, it was not good. It did not get us out of the drought at all and things worsened in the eastern part of the state," he said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, a collaboration between federal government agencies and educational institutions, on Thursday morning released its latest drought classification map, which showed little change since last week's update. Nearly a quarter of the state's area -- the most populous parts of the state, too -- remain in the "extreme drought" category and another 54.7 percent of the state is classified as being in a "severe drought."
The Drought Monitor this week expanded the portion of the state under its "moderate drought" classification further into Berkshire County, knocking the percentage of the state that is not by the monitor's standards in a drought to less than 5 percent.
The extended drought that has languished over the state for much of the summer could lead to a "severe shortage" of feed for dairy and beef farmers, Rep. Paul Schmid said Thursday as the beef farmer turned legislator updated the state's drought task force.
"The drought really is bad, my friends are telling me, and we all agree, it's as bad as we've ever seen it," Schmid, the House chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, said.
Schmid, of Westport, said he typically allows his cattle to graze in an open pasture as long as the pasture continues to feed the herd, typically until the end of November and then serves the cattle feed through the winter. But this year, he said, he has already begun to give the cattle the feed he had stored away for winter because the pasture can no longer feed the herd.
"What is disturbing is we don't know when the pasture will come back or if it will come back this season. If it doesn't come back, it means we will be feeding from September 1 to May 1 when we really only prepared to feed from December 1 to May 1," Schmid said. "There is the possibility of a severe shortage of feed for our industry."
Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John LeBeaux said the state's beekeepers are also starting to run into a similar issue.
"We're expecting poor bloom this fall, which will result in poor honey production," he said. "So actually our beekeepers, we're reaching out to them, we have many hobby beekeepers, and making sure all our beekeepers are aware they're actually going to have to supplement their hives ... so that there is adequate preserves to get through the winter."
The next meeting of the Drought Management Task Force is planned for the first week of October and National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Dunham told task force members not to expect much rainfall before then.
"Basically only looking for a tenth to maybe up to as much as half an inch of precipitation now through Sept. 14," Dunham said.
Forecasting models show "equal chances" of above- and below-average rainfall amounts for the second half of the month, Dunham said.
"We need a nice slow moving system that's actually moving, unlike Hermine, to give us two to three days of nice, steady rain," he said, "and I just don't see that happening right now."