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Dry rivers and wildfires worsen as drought continues in Massachusetts

The same stretch of the Charles River in Medway, Massachusetts, in 2021 and this year.
Tim Rice (left) and Stephanie Carlisle (right), compliance coordinator for Medway DPW
/
Courtesy of Charles River Watershed Association
The same stretch of the Charles River in Medway, Massachusetts, in 2021 and this year.

Despite a wet start to the week, there hasn't been nearly enough rain to make up for months of dry weather in Massachusetts. The rain from mid-April to now is the lowest the state has ever recorded, going back to 1872.

"We are behind by about 3 months of rainfall, about 10 inches," says GBH meteorologist Dave Epstein.

The drought continues to dry up rivers, harming some wildlife that rely upon those waterways. It's also having significant impacts on agriculture, causing local restrictions on water usage, and leading to worse wildfires across Massachusetts. To help protect forests, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation on Tuesday announced a statewide ban on open flame and charcoal fires on DCR property.

Grasses and shrubs are dried out, literally adding fuel to the fires, said Dave Celino, the chief fire warden for the DCR. And wetlands are parched, so there aren't wet areas to naturally prevent fires from spreading.

Dry conditions have led to 35 wildfires in just the last seven days, burning at least 188 acres, according to state officials.

"Typically in July and August, we don't get a lot of fire activity in a normal year because we're humid, the vegetation is in growing conditions, the live vegetation is not going to typically burn," Celino told GBH News. "And so our low in the fire activity is the end of June, in July and then beginning of August. But in August, already we've had 97 fires for 295 acres burned."

Those fires include 86 acres burned in Lynn Woods, 75 acres in Breakheart Reservation Forest in Saugus, and 19 acres in Rockport. Those fires are contained but continue to burn, Celino said.

"A lot of these fires are going to continue to burn until you have a season-ending event like a tropical storm that gives us 3 inches of rain over a week's period of time," he said.

That's not currently in the forecast.

"Whatever we get yesterday and today, we're fairly confident that that's pretty much it for the end of the month," Ronald Horwood of the National Weather Service told members of the state's Drought Management Task Force in a meeting Tuesday. "Basically from the 24th through the 31st, we're expecting near or maybe under a quarter of an inch right through the end of August."

Most of the state has been considered in critical drought (level 3) since Aug. 9. On Tuesday, the state's Drought Management Task Force recommended that Cape Cod, which was at a level 2 drought, be elevated to that list. For the westernmost part of the state and the islands, which had both been considered a mild drought (level 1), the task force recommended an elevation to level 2.

The drought is affecting public water supplies, as well. Nearly half of the 345 water management permits issued by the state DEP have currently placed restrictions on water usage.

The Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies water to Boston and more than 30 other communities through the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, is still 94% full, John Gregoire of MWRA told the task force. But the reservoir has lost about a foot of elevation in the last month and continues to slowly decline, he said.

"In other parts of the state where there is 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," said the state's director of water policy, Vandana Rao. "We just don't want wells drying up or having other other issues where they can't access the water they need for their daily use."

Tuesday's Drought Management Task Force meeting highlighted a range of other effects the drought is having.

"Farms across all regions are still reporting significant impacts to their crops," Michael Botelho of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources told the task force. "Excessive costs associated with irrigating, for the most part, throughout the day. There's reports of undersized fruit as well as blossom-end rot being reported as there's just not enough water internal to the plant to move nutrients and calcium internally to make new cells, which obviously affects fruit size and quality."

The state's office of Energy and Environmental Affairs recently launched a new survey for members of the public to report any drought impacts they encounter. The form offers space for people to report a range of conditions, from reduced crop yields to changes in wildlife behavior.

As the drought continues, rivers across Massachusetts have turned to mud flats.

"The drought impact on the Charles River this year has been the worst drought that we've seen in recent years, with the lowest water levels throughout the 80 miles of the Charles River itself," Lisa Kumpf of the Charles River Watershed Association told GBH News. "And it has extreme impacts on not only the ecology and the creatures that live and depend on the river, but also on recreation."

Many parts of the Charles have gone muddy and still, she said.

"The water is pretty stagnant," she said. "It sits there and heats up, which causes there to be lower dissolved oxygen levels in these areas, which is harmful for a lot of fish and other creatures that live in the ecosystem. And there's simply just not as much space or available areas to migrate up and down the river. ... This can have a lasting impact for years to come as we see more and more droughts as climate change continues."

During Tuesday's Drought Management Task Force meeting, Kate Bentsen of the state's division of ecological restoration showed a photo of a completely dry brook in Northampton that she said usually has a few feet of water in it.

"I always see it with dozens of small fish in it," she said. "Completely dry when I visited last Thursday. So, needless to say, we could not sample for fish there. Saw a lot of raccoon prints on the stream bed here, so I'm sure they were taking advantage of all those dead fish that had nowhere to go."

While the current drought is bad, GBH meteorologist Dave Epstein notes we're not at the level of the prolonged drought the state saw in the mid-1960s.

"Of course, we don't know," Epstein said. "We still have September, October, November and December to see what happens."

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