Massachusetts drought conditions 'unprecedented'
BOSTON >> Farmers are worried about their crops, firefighters are battling wild fires burning 8 inches underground, some streams have been reduced to a trickle and homeowners have watched their lawns dry to a pale brown color.
Environmental science experts on Thursday agreed: much of Massachusetts is in the midst of a serious drought and its impact could be felt long after the hot weather gives way to autumn.
The Drought Management Task Force, after hearing from officials from various state and federal organizations, recommended Thursday that the state broaden the scope of its drought declaration to include all of Massachusetts and consider elevating the central and northeast parts of the state to a drought warning status, one step shy of a drought emergency.
Also Thursday, the United States Drought Monitor declared portions of Middlesex and Essex counties — a total of 3.66 percent of the state — to be under an "extreme drought," which a National Weather Service meteorologist said is unprecedented.
"We were talking in the office and we can't remember the Drought Monitor putting anything in Massachusetts at a D3," said Alan Dunham of the NWS' Hydrologic Program, referring to the Drought Monitor's category for extreme drought. "It's a rare situation for us."
Towns deemed by the Drought Monitor to be under an "extreme drought" include Andover, North Andover, Wilmington, North Reading, Tewksbury, Billerica, Concord, Lexington and Burlington.
According to the Drought Monitor, all of Massachusetts is "abnormally dry" or worse except for Nantucket. Thursday's update puts 91.78 percent of the state under at least a "moderate drought" with 61.7 percent of the state under a "severe drought."
On Wednesday, firefighters combated a 27-acre fire in Salem — the largest of the 1,330 wildland fires in the state this year, Department of Conservation and Recreation Chief Fire Warden David Celino said.
"That's fairly unheard of for us. Most of our fires have been small, two to five acres," Celino said. "Having a 27-acre fire in Salem tells us things are starting to increase in terms of how fire behavior is affected by the drought."
And since Sunday a 1.5-acre fire has been burning — mostly six to eight inches underground — in the Blue Hills Reservation south of Boston, Celino said. Because groundwater levels are so low fires can more easily work their way underground, making them difficult and more dangerous to extinguish, he said.
By almost every measurement used to assess a drought — streamflow, groundwater, precipitation, reservoir levels, crop moisture and more — the state is below normal.
"Right now what we're seeing is a dry condition across much of the state," Jonathan Yeo from DCR's Office of Water Resources said. "In July we did have lower than normal rainfall again across much of the state."
Under an official drought declaration since July 1, the Massachusetts Drought Management Task Force on Thursday recommended that the western part of the state and Cape Cod and the Islands be moved from the "normal" category and be placed under a drought advisory. The group also suggested that the southeast region and the Connecticut River Valley be elevated from an advisory to a drought watch.
The group debated how to handle the central and northeast regions, where the drought has had its most profound impacts. Some members said that because some streams in those areas have already dried up, they should be placed under a drought warning — the second highest classification.
"One of the reasons we think it's important to address the intensity of the drought now rather than wait until September is that this is the time of year when people really use a lot of water," Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said. "And we can in some way assess the severity of the problem so people will use less water, this is the time of year when it can make a difference. If we wait until September, we will have missed an opportunity to conserve a lot of water."
Task force co-chair Vandana Rao, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs' assistant director of water policy, said she would take the suggestion of moving to a warning "under advisement and talk about it internally."
At least one high-level administration official agreed that the state should move the central and northeast regions to a warning, based in part on forecasts that call for more hot, dry weather.
"I think we heard from several people in the room the importance of trying to save water now so we can keep our resource available moving forward," DCR Commissioner Leo Roy said. "The next six weeks are really critical ... our delay in moving to a higher level may be a lost opportunity in conserving water."
The task force made its recommendations to Energy and Environment Secretary Matthew Beaton, who did not attend the meeting. Beaton is expected to act on the recommendation and possibly change current drought levels for regions of the state by Monday.
If Beaton accepts the recommendations, the state would begin to do more public messaging around water conservation — including signboards on the sides of highways and some outdoor advertisements — and some targeted water use restrictions could be implemented.
Watershed groups have been urging the Baker administration to be more vocal about spreading the message of water conservation.
As the drought languishes through the already short growing season, Massachusetts farmers have been hit particularly hard.
The state Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR), working with the University of Massachusetts, last week began circulating to farmers a survey assessing the extent to which Bay State farmers have lost crops due to the drought.
The survey results are necessary, DAR said, "in order to seek a disaster declaration and disaster relief for Massachusetts farmers" from the federal Farm Service Agency.
"Preliminary findings do indicated that a substantial number of farmers have seen crop losses of 30 percent or greater," Trevor Battle, an environmental health inspector for DAR, said, noting that the survey will continue to circulate until Aug. 19.
Cranberry farmers, who account for about 20 percent of the state's agricultural output, are worried that the drought will result in smaller than normal cranberries and a late harvest, Battle said.
The cranberry harvest could be spared, he said, if rainfall becomes more plentiful during August. But meteorologists don't expect the dry weather to give way any time soon.
"What we're looking at ... this weekend through early next week is probably our best chance" for rainfall, Dunham said. "However, with showers and thunderstorm some people will get it and a lot of people won't."
Dunham said Boston is about an inch shy of its average rainfall total for the month of August and Worcester is right at its average amount. The last month to get greater than average precipitation was February, he said.
But the drought is not a result of just six months of dry weather, Dunham said, but rather has been growing bit by bit as precipitation has come in below average over a longer period of time.
"The last 36 months, three years, we've been dealing with below normal precip quite a lot," he said. "We've been fortunate where we have very dry summers but we get a recovery in the fall. But overall this has been building up."