After a blistering June, much of Massachusetts and New England is experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions.
Since June 10, the South Shore, Cape Cod, and the Berkshires have all been in a state of mild drought, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The US Drought Monitor, which tracks conditions across the country, has classified most of northern New England as abnormally dry or in moderate drought, with a splotch of central Maine in severe drought.
Although a lack of rainfall is typically the main reason for a drought, officials said the current declaration was mostly because of lower-than-normal ground water levels. Still, the state has experienced below-average precipitation this year, said Alan Dunham, a Boston-based meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
Boston has recorded 2.5 inches less than it usually does for the first six months of the year, while Worcester is almost 5 inches below average. But in another sign that rainfall isn’t the only factor, the state hasn’t declared a drought in the Worcester region.
As summer progresses, the likelihood of steady, gentle rain — the kind that best ends a drought — diminishes. Instead, precipitation often comes in thunderstorms, which pummel the dry ground with more water than it can absorb, causing runoff.
For most people in New England, the drought hasn’t changed life very much so far. Even on Cape Cod, where conditions are the driest, water management officials say they’re maintaining the status quo.
Cathal O’Brien, water superintendent for the town of Falmouth, said residents can only water their lawns on certain days of the week, based on their house number. The restriction, however, is just a precaution and has been adopted in years past in Falmouth and other Cape communities.
“We did it to be proactive,” O’Brien said.
Farther out on the Cape, in Wellfleet, John Portnoy has also yet to feel a water pinch. The 72-year-old keeps bees, an activity that requires a stable water supply.
To make honey, bees gather nectar from nearby plants and bring it back to their hive. But when droughts hit, plants produce less nectar to conserve water, leaving the bees little to work with.
That’s what happened to Portnoy last year, he said. This year, “It’s still dry, but it’s much moister than last year.”
In Pittsfield, Maine, where drought conditions are severe, Mayor Heather Donahue said the dry spell hasn’t affected her town too badly yet. But summer has just begun.
“I think most people start feeling it later in the summer, like July into August, when wells start to dry up and we lose what ground water is there,” she said. “We’re not where we’re supposed to be, but for us right now, we’re not seeing severe effects of drought.”
Donahue, who has owned Balfour Farm in Pittsfield with her husband for about a decade, said the dry conditions have helped the dairy farm, although “that could change pretty quickly.”
“We actually were able to get about two-thirds of our hay in already, which is really unusual for us,” she said. “Because it’s dry, we can get on a lot more of our fields. We haven’t had these spring storms that soak the fields [so that] we can’t get on them with the tractors.”
But later in the summer, when the heat intensifies, the dry ground will mean less grass to feed the cows, she said.
On Nantucket, Sean Oberly is also minding the dry weather’s effect on grass, but not to feed cows. Oberly is the director of agronomy at Miacomet Golf Course, where he is tasked with keeping the club’s 18 holes lush and verdant. But unlike for Donahue, the dry spell has not been good news.
Although Nantucket is not included in the state’s drought declaration, the US Drought Monitor lists it as “abnormally dry.” Last year, Oberly said, the course came close to reaching its water-use limit, which is set by the state Department of Environmental Protection. This year, it’s on track to do so again.
Oberly has already stopped watering the course’s driving range, because “if it gets brown out there, it is what it is.” Oberly’s team also uses an advanced monitoring system to better control how water is used on the course.
What’s beyond their control are the most crucial elements: heat and the frequency and intensity of rain. After this week’s heat wave, fingers are crossed.
“It’s almost like, ‘Here we go,’ ” Oberly said. “It’s happening so early this year that we’re worried about how much water we’re going to use.”