State officials to reassess effect of drought reassessment on farms
BOSTON >> Since June 1, Lawrence has seen 1.83 inches of rain, just less than a quarter of the rainfall the city might expect during a typical summer and so little that the 65 days since have been the driest June 1 through August 4 period in at least 145 years, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC).
During a "normal" June and July, Lawrence would expect to get just more than eight inches of rain, meaning this summer it has gotten just 23 percent of the normal rainfall amount. Belchertown has so far gotten 5.9 inches of rain, the NRCC said, but even that is just 65 percent of the rainfall the town could expect in a normal summer.
Under an official drought declaration since July 1, the Massachusetts Drought Management Task Force on Thursday plans to get updates on conditions around the state and consider changing the drought level index for some parts of the state.
"We're continuing to monitor the situation," Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton told the News Service on Friday. "We have a whole host of experts who are obviously keenly focused in on this issue right now. It is a very serious issue."
State and federal agencies will update the task force Thursday on various aspects of the drought — from the impacts on water supplies to the public health implications — and the task force will then make a recommendation to Beaton.
"There is no secret formula that says, 'yes we've hit a drought' if it's just this much rain or this level of water bodies. It's all of those factors — stream flow, precipitation, reservoir capacity, things of that nature."
After the last task force meeting, Beaton on July 8 issued a drought watch for the central and northeast regions and a drought advisory for the Connecticut River and southeast regions.
Since then the continued lack of rain has increased the risk of wildfires and slowed agriculture, cutting into crop productivity across much of the Northeast. The dry weather has not given way — and meteorologists don't expect it to.
"Conditions have deteriorated across the Northeast and eastern Great Lakes region over the last four weeks, and conditions are expected to persist through October," the National Weather Service wrote in its August drought outlook.
As the drought languishes through the already short growing season, Massachusetts farmers have been hit particularly hard. The NRCC reported that tests conducted the last week of July found topsoil moisture was "short or very short" for 53 percent of New England.
"Obviously this is a critical juncture and a critical point in time for the agricultural community, this is the peak of their growing season right now," Beaton said. "We are significantly below precipitation levels and we're doing a pretty significant amount of outreach to them to first get an understanding."
The state Department of Agricultural Resources on Friday was 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.
"If their crops are affected more than 30 percent of their yield there might be some opportunity for us to work with the farmers to go out and get some federal funding to help them secure their business and their crop yield," Beaton said.
The Massachusetts Rivers Alliance and the Charles River Watershed Association are part of a coalition of 45 environmental organizations that have called on Beaton to launch a public service campaign urging people to stop watering their lawns and conserve water by running only full loads in washing machines and dishwashers, shortening showers and flushing toilets less often.
The coalition says town-by-town water use restrictions vary and claims odd-even day watering restrictions may actually increase water use. In a letter to Beaton, coalition members said they want the state to issue "backlogged" water withdrawal permits that they say include more effective water conservation requirements. They also asked that Beaton fill the recently vacated director of water policy post.
"The cost of this drought will be tremendous to the economy, businesses and industry, and agriculture as water becomes scarcer," representatives of the 45 groups wrote in their Aug. 2 letter. "It will impact tourism; we are already seeing curtailment of water recreation, both boating and fishing. Several rivers are already at record low flows. The drought also provides ideal conditions for widespread outbreaks of cyanobacteria, or toxic blue-green algae, harmful to public health and wildlife, and has contributed to the gypsy moth outbreak. Because there is a lag time from rainfall to aquifer replenishment, even if it ended in the fall, the drought's impacts will be felt for many months.
The coalition asked for a meeting with Beaton. A Charles River Watershed Association official said Monday that Beaton asked them to instead meet with Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Leo Roy but the official, deputy director and general counsel Margaret van Deusen, told the News Service late Monday afternoon that they had learned that Roy's schedule did not permit a meeting before Thursday and been advised that a meeting "in the next couple of weeks should work."
Van Deusen called that an "ineffective response" and said drought conditions call for a meeting sooner. "This is an issue that requires leadership from the top now," she said.
The 7,755 farms in Massachusetts annually produce $492 million in products, according to DAR, and the state's farms employ almost 28,000 workers. About 28 percent of the state's agricultural output comes from the greenhouse and nursery industry, and the cranberry sector makes up about 20 percent of the state's agriculture.
The drought has slowed growing in backyard gardens and dried lawns, too. So far 128 municipalities have imposed mandatory water use restrictions — limiting nonessential outdoor water use in an attempt to conserve — and another 14 have put out voluntary water use restrictions for their residents, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
As of Aug. 1, the Quabbin Reservoir that serves dozens of communities in the Metro Boston area was at 87.4 percent of its 412 billion-gallon maximum capacity, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority said. And the 65 billion-gallon Wachusett Reservoir was 91.1 percent full.
The Drought Management Task Force plans to meet at 10 a.m. on Thursday.
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