Rivers and streams have run dry or extremely low in recent weeks, leaving large numbers of fish and other aquatic creatures to die or seek refuge with little protection from predators.
Parched forests have been robbed of mushrooms and insects, while many maples, birches, and other trees have already lost their leaves, turning much of the region’s woodlands into a tinderbox that has provided kindling for a surge in wildfires.
Record temperatures this summer and a precipitous decline in rainfall have produced a worsening drought that extends from Cape Cod to the Berkshires and beyond, with some parts of New England experiencing what federal regulators call “severe” and “extreme" conditions.
In Massachusetts, temperatures this summer broke a century’s worth of heat records by nearly a degree and much of the state has received about 8 inches less rainfall than usual, with little expected in the coming weeks.
The Boston area received 7.2 inches less rain than usual between May and September, making it the 10th driest period since 1872, according to the National Weather Service in Norton.
Few parts of the state have been unaffected by the drought. More than 150 municipalities in Massachusetts have adopted voluntary or mandatory water-use restrictions. Cranberry growers worry they won’t have enough water to flood their bogs for the coming harvest. And some herring runs have been blocked by a lack of access to the sea.
The impact of the drought, which comes just four years after one of the state’s worst dry stretches on record, has been exacerbated in some areas by the pandemic, as municipalities increasingly rely on groundwater to serve more residents working from home and using their faucets and toilets more often.
“With the perfect storm of high heat, increased summer demand, and more people at home due to COVID-19, our streams are drying up ... and wildlife are suffering,” said Samantha Woods, executive director of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, an advocacy group that seeks to protect waters from Plymouth to Hull.
State environmental officials have declared a “significant” drought in every region of Massachusetts, spurring a range of water restrictions. The state has recommended that cities and towns limit outdoor watering to once a week, with hand-held hoses; limit or prohibit the planting of new grass and other landscaping; reduce leaks in their water systems; and add drought surcharges to water rates, among other measures.
In three communities experiencing the worst of the drought — Ashland, Foxborough, and Lynnfield — the state Department of Environmental Protection has declared water emergencies, requiring local officials to take specific steps to reduce water use.
“While Western Massachusetts has seen moderate improvement in recent weeks, conditions are becoming increasingly dry in the Southeast, Cape Cod and Islands, and coastal regions,” said Craig Gilvarg, a spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “The Commonwealth continues to closely monitor conditions as they unfold.”
State and local officials have also been battling an increasing number of wildfires, which have been intensified by the drought.
So far this year, more than 1,000 wildfires have burned over 700 acres — more than triple the number of fires in all of last year and more acreage burned than in any of the previous three years.
Even more unusual were the large number of wildfires that burned throughout the summer, a time when humidity, heavy storms, and trees full of leaves typically limit the number of fires, said David Celino, chief fire warden for the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“When you get a lot of fire in August, it’s a clear sign of drought conditions,” he said, on a day this month when eight fires were still burning.
The state’s fire season usually starts in early spring and ends in June, but this year it hasn’t stopped. And the persisting dry conditions are raising concerns about a smoky fall.
“With leaves starting to drop, that’s going to make a bad situation even worse,” Celino said, as dead leaves serve as kindling for wildfires.
The conditions are even worse elsewhere in New England, with nearly all of Rhode Island and parts of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine experiencing extreme droughts, according to the US Drought Monitor.
As catastrophic wildfires have burned in the western United States, there’s little debate that global warming has made them worse, with hotter temperatures and more droughts creating drier conditions. Studies have found that climate change has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the West.
New England is likely to receive greater amounts of rain as the planet warms over the coming decades, but that precipitation is expected to come mainly in heavy bursts instead of continuous rainfall, according to climate models.
With warmer winters and less of a sustained snowpack, especially in the northern parts of the region, topsoil and forests are likely to hold less moisture, leading to more droughts and greater flooding, scientists say.
“We will not only have warmer conditions but also greater extremes,” said Richard Primack, a biology professor at Boston University.
He noted that the state experienced flooding from major storms in 2010, massive snowstorms in 2013, and a severe drought in 2016.
“Extreme years are becoming more typical,” he said.
While the dry conditions haven’t reached the level of 2016, the impact of the drought has been considerable, from a lack of butterflies to an absence of fungi, both of which depend on moisture to thrive.
“There are hardly any mushrooms around,” said Susan Goldhor, a biologist who serves as president of the Boston Mycological Club.
Butterflies rely on nectar, which has been in short supply, and their forebears, caterpillars, rely on a generous supply of healthy leaves.
“It’s been too dry for flowers to produce good nectar, or for some plants to flower at all,” said Martha Gach, conservation coordinator at Mass Audubon. “Drought is hard on plants, [and] leaves crisp up and die.”
The drought also poses a danger to a range of reptiles, especially turtles, which become more vulnerable to predators as waters recede. Scientists have already observed high levels of mortality of juvenile and adult wood turtles in northeastern Massachusetts.
“If the current drought conditions persist into the late autumn, we worry that juvenile and even adult rare aquatic turtles may be exposed to a much greater danger of death during winter hibernation than usual,” said Bryan Windmiller, director of conservation at Zoo New England.
The lack of rainfall has also threatened many of the state’s crops, especially its iconic cranberries, which rely heavily on water. In some cases, crops have already been damaged, with bogs drying out and the ruby-colored fruit dying or shriveling on the vine.
Some farms have already run out of water, and others are nearing that point.
“Growers are desperately concerned over water levels,” said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association. “This situation is testing the patience of even the most seasoned farmer.”
With little rainfall expected in the coming weeks, those who monitor the region’s vital watersheds are increasingly worried. On the Ipswich River, water flows are nearing historic lows set in 2016, with several tributaries already dry.
Exacerbating the drought conditions are millions of gallons of water being withdrawn by neighboring towns, said Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.
The situation has gotten so bad that water flows in some streams have been moving backward as municipal wells draw on them, he said.
“It’s absolutely devastating for this to happen," he said. “Anything alive in the stream will be lost."
State officials shared videos of one brook that runs between Hanover and Norwell that showed fish gasping for air in the muddy remains of the stream.
In the lower basin of the Charles River, where water levels are far below normal, there has been an outbreak of dangerous algae blooms since June. Their toxic ingredients, cyanobacteria, kill fish and can be harmful to pets and people.
There have been similar outbreaks in other sections of the river, including a stretch between Newton and Weston, that has experienced such blooms only once in the past 15 years, said Julie Wood, deputy director of the Charles River Watershed Association.
She worries that more tributaries and connecting streams may soon lose all their water, which would have profound and lasting effects.
“Dry streams do not support any life," she said. “It can take many years for stream habitats to recover from going completely dry.”