Worsening drought prompts water conservation

Nearly 100 forest fires reported in August. Crops smaller than usual. Browning, cracking lawns and a constellation of restrictions on how households must use water.

Welcome to the 2022 drought in Massachusetts, which continues to worsen amid high temperatures and low rainfall.

The impacts of the significant dry spell ripple through agriculture, fire safety, watersheds and, of course, recommendations from water providers and local governments for Bay Staters to reduce washing their cars and watering the grass.

“The situation is obviously not looking great,” said Vandana Rao, director of water policy at the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, who praised the “expansive” restrictions of the state. outdoor watering system implemented by many suppliers. “What we would like to keep repeating is that in other parts of the state where there is no public water system and people are on wells, even private wells , they too have to exert the same level of restraint in the amount of water they’re using outdoors We just don’t want the wells to run dry or have other problems where they can’t access the water they need for their daily use.

The EEA said Aug. 9 that four of the seven regions monitored for drought severity are in “critical drought,” one category less than the most severe level, called “emergency drought,” on a scale. five points.

The state’s drought management task force agreed on Tuesday to recommend raising the alert level for the westernmost part of the state, Cape Cod, and the islands, the three regions that are not yet at this critical level. Western Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket would change from “mild drought” to “significant drought”, and Cape Town would change from “significant drought” to “critical drought” according to the group’s suggestion.

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Beth Card will review the information presented and make a decision on whether to update the drought declaration in the coming days, according to a spokesperson.

If Card followed the panel’s recommendation, it would push the entire state into at least one major drought and five of the seven regions into a critical drought. This would likely mark the worst outlook for years – in October and November 2016, when Cape Town and the islands were lumped into a single category, five of the six regions had the second worst levels of drought.

Task force members spent more than two hours hearing reports of stream flow, rainfall, wildfires and other drought markers before deciding to call for increased reporting in three other regions. While discussing the western part of the state, Rao warned of “deteriorating” drought indicators.

“I was just in Cape Town. It’s very dry there. Very crisp,” Massachusetts Rivers Alliance executive director Julia Blatt added when the conversation turned to that area.

A rainy Monday helped a bit, but the weather this summer has steadily exacerbated the problem.

Between May 25 and August 22, most counties in Suffolk, Norfolk, Middlesex and Essex received between a quarter and half the rainfall than they typically did over that 30-year period, while the Central and western Massachusetts saw between 50 and 75 percent of average precipitation, Nicole Belk of the National Weather Service told the task force.

The weather has become even drier over the past month, with only between 10 and 25 percent of normal precipitation falling in a U-shaped stretch of the state from Worcester to Boston and down to Cape Ann and no more than the half the average amount in large sections of the rest of the state.

Belk said the outlook for September, October and November calls for a “significant chance of above-normal temperatures” and “equal chances of above-normal, below-normal or near-normal precipitation,” creating uncertainty. about the rains that might bring relief.

Rivers in the Bay State have also felt an impact. Ronald Horwood, a senior NWS meteorologist, said he saw “lower flows, a lot more record low flows, and just a general decline in the river environment,” Worcester, Essex, Norfolk and Bristol counties appearing “exceptionally bad right now”. .”

The risk of fire is also increased during periods of drought.

Wildfire Chief Dave Celino told the task force that his department had received reports of 97 wildfires so far in August, a number that is expected to increase under the persistent drought conditions. Celino said the recent rain has improved the outlook, but only slightly.

“It positively affects the ignition potential. What it doesn’t affect is the ongoing ground fuel burn,” he said.

Michael Botelho, director of the Department of Agricultural Resources’ product safety, market access and certification division, said farmers across the state have reported “significant impacts on their crops,” including higher costs for watering plants throughout the day, undersized fruit and late flowering. to rot.

This trend will likely continue as the fall harvest approaches, he said.

To conserve water, many municipalities or water agencies have restricted outdoor water use, calling on households to limit or completely stop activities such as irrigating lawns and new plants. Some are limiting potential penalties — Cohasset, for example, on Monday banned all non-essential outdoor water use and threatened fines of between $50 and $100 for violations.

Department of Environmental Protection water management program chief Duane LeVangie said the state has 345 water management systems, most of which have triggers that require water reduction. use under certain conditions.

As of May 12, Levangie said 65 of those systems had restrictions in place; this number is now up to 168.

Getting residents to respect boundaries doesn’t always come easy, a challenge that prompted the executive director of the Mass. Water Works Association, Jennifer Pederson, to suggest putting Governor Charlie Baker himself in front of the cameras to encourage reduced water use.

“I feel like we’ve been a little slow to ramp up some of that plan-based communication,” Pederson said. “I retweeted about water use restrictions, and frankly, there are people out there – I had someone say, ‘Never.’ It’s really a difficult task to communicate with the public about this and to make them react, and maybe we need a little more force behind it.”

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