Why are we not talking more about the drought?

Andrea Donlon is one of four river stewards charged with overseeing the Connecticut River Conservancy, a 60-plus-year-old organization that monitors New England’s longest river.

The task is a big one, as the Connecticut River cuts through four states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as a tiny sliver of Oxford County, Maine. In total, the watershed covers 410 miles of land, flowing from just near the Canada-U.S. border all the way to the Long Island Sound.

Along with paying attention to advocacy and legislative efforts surrounding water use, a big part of Donlon’s job is to observe the section of the massive river that travels through Massachusetts.

However, the picture she has seen of the immense, snaking body of water this summer and fall has not been a pretty one.

Images of streams, rivers, ponds, reservoirs and lakes throughout Massachusetts right now share the same message by and large: The state is in a drought, and it is bad.

For close to five months, dry conditions have battered the region, causing water levels to plummet in all six New England states. The drought has left municipal and state officials scrambling to message residents on the need for conservation and has sparked concerns among hard-hit farmers who have been forced to increase irrigation on their lands.

“We’ve been in a drought a few months now. We’ve had a few showers here and there, but it hasn’t added up much,” said Julia Blatt, the founding director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance and a member of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs’ Drought Management Task Force.

As the head of the state’s premier river protection organization, Blatt represents watersheds like the Connecticut River on the drought task force to let “folks in Boston know what’s going on across the state,” Donlon said.

From the middle of the summer through the early fall, officials have recorded extremely low river levels, “well below normal levels for this date,” Donlon noted last week.

The “alarming” conditions are abnormal for New England, which tends to avoid regular droughts unlike California and other areas of the country, according to experts.

However, dry conditions in the Northeast are not unheard of, and they may become more regular with climate change looming on the horizon, officials warn.

“My understanding is that with climate change, we’re going to be seeing more extremes in everything, higher-intensity storms and more frequent droughts, and it really does seem like we’ve been having that,” Donlon said.

Speaking with a MassLive and Republican editorial board on Thursday, U.S. Rep. James McGovern said the issue of climate change is one that is resonating deeply with one group of Massachusetts residents: Farmers.

“This year, every farm I went to talked about the climate crisis,” McGovern said. “Every farm.

“We need to do something on climate change. Something big and bold.”

Due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, environmental advocates believe the drought has not received the attention it deserves. The regional environmental crisis has understandably taken a backseat to the global public health crisis, they say.

During any other year, the issue would get more widespread attention, Blatt said. In 2016, for instance, when Massachusetts last saw dry conditions of the large magnitude it is seeing today, awareness and press coverage of the drought was constant.

For environmental organizations like the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, what has made combatting the drought more of an obstacle is, simply, a lack of public messaging on the part of Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, according to Blatt.

“One of the things that is frustrating for us at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance is that we certainly do have a pandemic, but it doesn’t seem like the state is good at handling two crises at once,” she said.

The alliance is currently asking for more resources from the state and for Baker to better broadcast the dilemma.

The message Blatt, Donlon and others want to get across to residents who may be unaware of the drought is conservation is crucial. They are urging people to avoid using water for any unnecessary purposes, like lawn watering, and to shore up any leaky faucets, as leaks can add up.

“It’s pretty alarming,” Blatt said about the drought. “We’ve had over 1,000 fires in the state. We’ve seen water levels drop. In streams, we have some outbreaks of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, which is toxic. It becomes a problem when you have conditions like this.”

The impact of the 2020 statewide drought in Massachusetts on Atkins Reservoir in Amherst. Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

The evolution of the drought

For many Massachusetts residents, the severe dry conditions they are witnessing now and have watched develop for the past several months are not going away any time soon.

Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, is tasked with monitoring dry conditions throughout the United States. The center runs the U.S. Drought Monitor, which provides updates about the six main regions of the country every Thursday morning.

He pointed out the drought is not solely limited to Massachusetts. It has stretched across many areas in the Northeast, and severe conditions have even spread to New Hampshire and Maine, which are usually exempt from the elevated levels of dryness that are being recorded.

Such conditions are causing side effects residents may not even be aware of, like an early onset of the region’s fall foliage peak and other, more ecologically harmful impacts.

The region as a whole is showing serious drying, which has been going on for quite some time, according to Fuchs.

Recent showers in the past two weeks have helped alleviate some of the dryness, but for the drought to be driven away, steadier, longer-term downpours are needed, climatologists like Fuchs say.

The majority of Southeastern Massachusetts, which has consistently been the hardest-hit part of the state, still remains in an extreme drought. However, dry conditions are being observed throughout the state, with coastal communities as well as cities as far west as Worcester and beyond implementing conservation measures.

So despite multiple days of more widespread rainfall this month, the state of the drought in New England “really hasn’t changed,” Fuchs pointed out.

“In all actuality, the areas that needed the precipitation the most, the coastal areas, they didn’t get much rain at all,” he said. “From Connecticut to Rhode Island to the eastern part of Massachusetts and even Maine, some of those areas are 12 to 16 inches of rainfall below normal.”

Looking to the future, at least in the Northeast, Fuchs is not expecting much of a shift in the drought come winter or spring.

“If we do stay dry and see these deficits build, we’re all seeing impacts on rivers and wells and streamflow levels,” he said.

His predictions were echoed by Blatt, who explained that if the state continues to see limited rain or snowfall for “months and months and months,” the drought conditions will not go away nor will they even lessen.

“With drought being so widespread, there may be some areas that see some improvement and others that don’t. It depends on the storms, where the rain goes,” Fuchs said. “It’s just something we’re going to have to watch going forward.”

The statewide drought began in June and quickly worsened. By late July, it had extended to more than half of Massachusetts, due in large part, authorities said, to oppressively hot weather and minimal rainfall.

Just two weeks ago, the state declared a Level 3 critical drought in the southeastern region of Massachusetts as well as in the Charles River Watershed in Greater Boston and the Millers River Watershed that lies mainly in Franklin and Worcester counties.

Each of those areas and the rest of the state, which remains in a Level 2 significant drought, “are facing critical strain,” according to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

“It certainly was a fast-moving drought, and we’ve seen in the southeast region, for example, that it moved from a Level 2 to a Level 3 very fast,” said Vandana Rao, the executive director of the Water Resources Commission at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “It remains to be seen how this drought compares to other droughts, but we’ve been seeing some drying conditions since the spring, and we’re already seeing the impacts now.”

Emergency drought declarations have been made in several communities, including Ashland, Burlington Foxborough and Lynnfield, authorities said.

“The declaration allows them to quickly tie into another system that provides them water without going through the regulatory approval,” explained Rao. “In the case of Burlington and Ashland, they were both hooked up to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority system.”

In Ipswich, a town that is home to a uniquely unregulated watershed, an emergency declaration remains in the realm of possibility, according to Rao.

The situation is “certainly looking bad,” the state official noted.

“The most obvious impacts are to the streamflow, to the water, to the soil,” she said. “It also impacts the fire susceptibility of the areas.”

The state of the drought in Massachusetts as of Oct. 22, 2020. Much of the state is in a moderate, severe or extreme drought. U.S. Drought Monitor

What the state is doing

How the drought will change in the weeks and months ahead remains somewhat of a mystery, but the state is closely monitoring the situation, Rao noted.

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” she said. “It’s hard to see how conditions will change in the coming months.”

Rao argued agencies of the commonwealth have done more now, though, than ever before in terms of outreach and education about the drought conditions.

“We’ve been proactively reaching out to the water supply industry, environmental organizations that work on the ground with residents, farmers. We’ve worked hard to get the word out to various areas,” she said.

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs is working closely with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to reach out to cities and towns about conservation tips they recommend.

The state has allocated tens of millions of dollars in grant money to farms. Some of those funds are going toward projects related to drought management.

Officials are also working to educate residents about the fact that there is a drought going on, revamping the state’s websites and providing outreach materials, social media posts and infographics that tell audiences in a “succinct matter” what the drought is and what they can do to conserve water, according to Rao.

“Can we do more to get the word out? Probably yes. Should more people be more aware of the drought? Yes. I think based on the avenues available to us at our disposal, we’ve worked hard with various agencies and various people to raise awareness and help, though,” Rao said.

The impact of the 2020 statewide drought in Massachusetts on the Pond Meadow Park in Braintree. Courtesy Robert Kearns/Massachusetts Rivers Alliance

The unforeseen consequences

Longer-lasting fires, weakened tree roots, dead fish: These are just a few of the consequences from a prolonged drought that experts believe the general public may not be completely aware of.

Fires tend to burn deeper if several layers of soil and brush become dryer, which has happened over the course of this year’s drought, according to Rao. Such a phenomenon creates an elevated risk of blazes in the wilderness that are more difficult to extinguish.

“The main way to put out fires is with water, and if there’s less water, those areas are even more high-risk,” Rao said.

Another unanticipated impact of the severely dry conditions, she noted: Weakened tree bases.

In 2016, for example, during the intense drought that lasted almost a year, officials heard of trees being weakened and toppled by strong storms, she said.

This year has been no different. Several harsh storms swept through Massachusetts in the summer and early fall, and although they left minimal rainfall that penetrated deep into the soil, they brought down hundreds of trees throughout the state.

Ecosystems and habitats, particularly wetlands on the banks of streams and rivers, are impacted harshly by drought as well, according to Rao.

“We’re seeing areas where streams are not flowing. They’re bubbling,” Rao said. “Fish cannot move, cannot migrate. Those habitats that rely on those areas being always wet are lost.”

She added, “There are certain offshoots of the drought that you don’t think about right away.”

The majority of the commonwealth, a little more than 6.4 million estimated residents, remain in drought as of Thursday, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of those individuals are seeing either severe or extreme conditions that are causing the wide array of ecological problems that Rao described.

Nearly 17% of the state is in the D3 extreme drought designation, which is only one step below the worst level, D4 exceptional drought. Both labels are cause for concern, officials warn.

Under a D3 designation, crop loss is widespread, Christmas tree farms are stressed, dairy farmers struggle, well drillers and bulk water haulers see more business, outbreaks of wildlife disease tick up, little to no river or stream flow is seen, wells run dry and water temperatures rise.

For officials like Blatt at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, the negative impact of severe drought cannot be emphasized enough.

“It wreaks havoc on habitats for fish as well as turtles and other wildlife,” she said. “I don’t think people think that much about droughts. We’re not used to droughts here in Massachusetts. Because of the hydrology in Massachusetts, certainly with reservoirs and some of our rivers, they don’t have a lot of storage, but if you get 44 inches a year, which is normal, there’s no problem. But if you have a drought, that water’s not being replenished.”

“As we get these longer-lasting and more severe droughts, we’re going to have to rethink the way we conserve water,” she added.

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