Coming off a weeklong heat wave with no relief in sight, towns across eastern Massachusetts are implementing mandatory water restrictions as drought conditions deplete the local water supply.
Last week, the US Drought Monitor reported that nearly the entire state was experiencing moderate or severe drought conditions. It’s a trend that climate change will intensify, experts say.
More than 100 towns currently have mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use, according to data from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Many of those restrictions were put in place in the spring or at the beginning of summer.
Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Norton said it is difficult to predict when this drought will break. There’s no expectation for widespread rain in the coming days, said meteorologist Bill Simpson
“It all depends on how the jet stream moves over us,” Simpson said, noting that temperatures could surpass 100 degrees again next week. “We’re going right back into heat and humidity next week.”
David Boutt, professor of hydrology at the University of Massachusetts, said that drought has become more common in the region over the past several decades, even as Massachusetts has experienced more rainfall overall.
“We’ve gone from extremely wet years to really dry years,” he said. “When it’s wet it’s wet, when it’s dry it’s really dry.”
Zachary Zobel, a climate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, said rain is also more often arriving in huge downpours instead of consistently over the course of a few weeks.
A quick little primer on watering. Our soil has now become hydrophobic. This means it will repel water. You have to water much slower when it gets to this point otherwise the water will just run off and be useless. #drought #weatherwisdom #horticulture #gardening pic.twitter.com/itzqT2EimA— Dave Epstein (@growingwisdom) July 26, 2022
“That’s not necessarily good for vegetation or the soil, because it can only absorb a certain amount of water at a time,” he said.
That probably won’t lead to long-term droughts like those seen in California, but it can cause more frequent dry spells, Zobel said.
In addition to changing rainfall patterns, climate change is driving up temperatures in New England, and heat can speed up evaporation and leave soil parched. Without urgent action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, that trend is expected to become even more severe, Zobel said.
In Pembroke, water levels were so low on Sunday and Monday that it impacted water pressure in fire hydrants, raising concerns among public safety officials.
“It’s just a dangerous situation,” said Jason Viveiros, the town’s fire chief.
Viveiros said the department would have had to bring its own tankers or rely on neighboring communities to supply water on Sunday and Monday. Fortunately, the town didn’t have a major fire on those days, and hydrants’ water pressure has since improved, said William Chenard, Pembroke’s town manager.
Still, the current situation is “scary,” and other water restrictions will be in place until further notice, he said.
Over the weekend, the town adopted an emergency water ban, citing “severely low water levels,” low water pressure, and discolored water. Town officials are calling on residents to refrain from washing vehicles, watering grass, filling up swimming pools, or otherwise using water outdoors. Fines for violating the ban start at $50. The ban does not apply to people with private wells, which is about 25 percent of residents, Chenard said.
On Monday, Ipswich’s select board also established a ban on outdoor water use. Water pressure and flow have remained steady and the restrictions should help keep it that way, said the town’s water director, Vicki Halmen.
“The demand has increased due to the heat and the dryness ... and if the drought is prolonged and the use continues to be high, we have to take steps to change behavior and sustain the water system, she said Wednesday.
The ban in Ipswich applies to everyone, including residents with private wells.
There are currently no restrictions in Boston, Worcester, and other cities and towns that are supplied by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, according to Ria Convery, a spokeswoman for the MWRA. The Boston Fire Department said it hasn’t had any problems with fire hydrants in the city.
The water authority pulls its water from the Quabbin Reservoir and the Wachusett Reservoir, Convery said.
“Those are both in normal operating range for this time of year,” Convery said. “But we can’t take it for granted and we keep urging our customers to conserve water.”
South of Boston, Fairhaven has not instituted a mandatory water ban, but has had voluntary restrictions in place since July 18. Residents are asked to water their lawns every other day, since home irrigation systems consume large quantities of water very quickly. They also advise residents to refrain from watering during the hottest parts of the day, to avoid quick evaporation.
Kristy Lavalette, principal office clerk at the town’s water department, said water levels are not critically low, yet.
“But I can definitely see it moving to mandatory, probably within the next week or so if we don’t get any rain,” she said.
In Holliston, the town increased its water restrictions over the weekend, prohibiting the use of automated irrigation systems, which use more water than hand-held hoses.
Drought conditions are even harder to weather in Holliston because one of the town’s wells is currently offline due to the construction of a new water treatment plant, said Sean Reese, director of the department of public works.
Even if rain finally falls in the coming weeks, it may not be enough to recharge the aquifer, so the new restrictions will be in place “indefinitely,” he said.