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Worsening drought spurs calls for water conservation

Nearly 100 wildfires reported in the month of August. Smaller-than-usual crops. Browning, crunchy lawns and a constellation of restrictions on how households should use water.

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

Impacts from the significant dry spell are rippling across agriculture, fire safety, watersheds and, of course, recommendations from water providers and local governments for Bay Staters to cut back on washing their cars and watering the grass.

"The situation obviously is not looking great," said Vandana Rao, director of water policy for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, who praised "expansive" outdoor watering restrictions implemented by many suppliers. "The thing we would want to continue to reiterate is that in other parts of the state where there's no public water supply system and people are on wells, even private wells, they too need to exercise the same level of restraint in how much water they're using outdoors. We just don't want wells drying up or having other issues where they can't access the water they need for their daily use."

EEA declared on Aug. 9 that four of the seven regions monitored for drought severity are in a "critical drought," one category shy of the most severe level, referred to as "emergency drought," on a five-point scale.

The state's Drought Management Task Force agreed Tuesday to recommend bumping up the alert level in the westernmost part of the state, Cape Cod, and the islands, the three regions that are not yet at that critical level. Western Massachusetts, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket would be moved from "mild drought" to "significant drought," and the Cape would jump from "significant drought" to "critical drought" under the group's suggestion.

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

If Card follows the panel's recommendation, it would push the entire state into at least significant drought and five of seven regions into critical drought. That would likely mark the worst outlook in years -- in October and November 2016, when the Cape and islands were lumped into a single category, five of six regions were in the second-worst drought level.

Task force members spent more than two hours hearing reports about stream flow, precipitation, wildfires and other drought markers before deciding to call for a heightened declaration in three more regions. While discussing the western reaches of the state, Rao warned about "deterioration" in the indicators of drought.

"I was just on the Cape. It's very dry there. Very crunchy," added Massachusetts Rivers Alliance Executive Director Julia Blatt when the conversation turned to that region.

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

Massachusetts has experienced 97 wildfires in the month of August so far according to a chart Chief Forest Fire Warden Dave Celino presented on Tuesday.
State House News Service
Massachusetts has experienced 97 wildfires in the month of August so far according to a chart Chief Forest Fire Warden Dave Celino presented on Tuesday.

Between May 25 and Aug. 22, most of Suffolk, Norfolk, Middlesex and Essex counties received between one-quarter and half as much precipitation as they typically did in that stretch over a 30-year period, while central and western Massachusetts saw between 50 and 75% of average precipitation, the National Weather Service's Nicole Belk told the task force.

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

Belk said the outlook for September, October and November projects a "significant chance of above-normal temperatures" and "equal chances of above-normal, below-normal or near-normal precipitation," creating uncertainty about rain that could bring relief.

Bay State rivers have felt an impact, too. Ronald Horwood, an NWS senior meteorologist, said he has observed "lower flows, many more record low-level flows, and just a general decline in the river environment," with Worcester, Essex, Norfolk and Bristol Counties appearing "exceptionally bad right now."

Fire risks are also heightened during periods of drought.

Chief Forest Fire Warden Dave Celino told the task force his department has received reports of 97 wildfires so far in August, a number that is likely to increase amid ongoing dry conditions. Celino said the latest rain improved the outlook but only slightly.

"It positively affects ignition potential. What it doesn't affect is ground fuel burning that's ongoing," he said.

Michael Botelho, director of the Department of Agricultural Resources's produce safety, market access and certification division, said farmers across the state have reported "significant impacts to their crops," including higher costs to keep plants watered throughout the day, undersized fruit and blossom end rot.

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

To preserve water, many municipalities or water agencies have restricted outdoor water use, calling on households to limit or entirely cease activities such as irrigating lawns and new plants. Some are tying the limits to potential punishment -- Cohasset, for example, banned all non-essential outdoor water use on Monday and threatened fines between $50 and $100 for violations.

Department of Environmental Protection Water Management Program Chief Duane LeVangie said the state has 345 water management systems in place, most of which feature triggers requiring reduction in usage in certain conditions.

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

Getting residents to comply with the limits does not always prove easy, a challenge that prompted Mass. Water Works Association Executive Director Jennifer Pederson to suggest putting Gov. Charlie Baker himself in front of cameras to encourage cutting back on water usage.

"I feel like we've been a little slow to escalate some of this communication piece based on the plan," Pederson said. "I did retweet about the water use restrictions, and frankly, there are folks out there -- I got someone tweet back to me, 'Never.' It really is a difficult task to communicate with the public on this and get them to react, and maybe we need a little more force behind it."

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