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How the Charles River is being affected by drought

The Charles River is very low at Millennium Park in West Roxbury
At Millennium Park in West Roxbury, the Charles River is so low you can't launch a kayak or canoe. (undefined)

At Millennium Park in West Roxbury, there’s a public launch where you can set out on a kayak or canoe and explore the Charles River.

But don’t try that right now.

The river’s water level is much too low, thanks to the dry, hot weather that has led to drought conditions across the state.

”It’s definitely a gross scene,” said Katharine Lange, a policy specialist at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“This is indicative of what we are seeing statewide,” Lange said. “We have a lot of streams that have run dry this summer. The scene of the Charles is bad — but unfortunately not unique in Massachusetts.”

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More than half of Massachusetts is now experiencing severe drought conditions, according to the latest map issued by the federal government’s official drought-tracking service.

The US Drought Monitor map shows that, with the drought expanding onto Cape Cod in the past week, 57.2 percent of the state is in severe drought, including much of Central Massachusetts and all of mainland Eastern Massachusetts. The rest of the state has moderate drought conditions, except for a sliver on the western border that is just abnormally dry.

Many communities have instituted restrictions on outdoor water use.

Ron Horwood, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Northeast River Forecast Center, said on Wednesday that most of the rivers and streams in Central and Eastern Massachusetts are flowing in the lowest 10th percentile of all recorded observations, meaning that 90 percent of flows recorded have been higher.

Water levels at certain points in the Charles River are now at an all-time low, as seen at Millennium Park on Thursday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Conditions at the Charles River in Dover are especially dire and the river is close to breaking its record for low flow at that point. The current flow is 10 cubic feet per second, when the all-time low for this time of year is 9.3 cubic feet per second

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It’s “quite possible,” Horwood said, that the record over 84 years of observations will be broken.

Flow measurements on the Charles improve, but only marginally, as the river winds toward Boston, he said. The river’s flow measurements taken in Wellesley and Waltham are in the 4th and 7th percentiles, respectively.

“Flows are really, really poor,” he said.

“We need rain. We really need rain,” said Lange. “Without that, we don’t have the recharge that we need.”

Billy Harrow from Roslindale paddles his kayak to the canoe launch on the Charles River at Millennium Park in 2016, when the river level was higher.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

Some areas of the state, including Suffolk, Norfolk, and Essex counties, Horwood said, have received 6 to 8 inches less rain than normal.

“We’ve been in an intensifying drought for the last basically two months,” he said.

The little rain that has fallen has come at times when temperatures were high, causing the water to evaporate quickly, “so that really is a double whammy,” he said.

Other rivers getting hit hard include the Ipswich River, Parker River, and the Neponset River, he said. The Neponset at Norwood has broken its record for lowest flow over 82 years of observations.

A dog print is dried into the mud in the Charles River at Millennium Park.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Horwood said the Boston area has a significant advantage in one respect: The Quabbin Reservoir, which is the water source for dozens of communities that are served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, including Boston, is “such a huge reservoir it takes years for that to be affected by a drought.”

Will the parched landscape get a break any time soon?

“We don’t see any drought-busting rains coming” soon to make up for the rain deficit, Horwood said. While there may be showers or thunderstorms here and there into early next week, they will offer only “localized relief.”

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Data from the Charles River Watershed Association’s volunteer monthly monitoring program shows that the water level at the Route 109 bridge upstream of Millennium Park was at 6.67 feet in March. By July it had dropped to 4.04 feet. That’s a big difference compared to July 2021, when the water level at that location was 7.42 feet.

“Water levels are incredibly low and are telling of rapidly escalating drought conditions,” said Julia Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the Charles River Watershed Association, in an e-mail.

On Wednesday afternoon a woman, who declined to give her name, was walking two dogs in the middle of the Charles River in Millennium Park near the canoe launch, where the water was only about ankle deep.

“I don’t think I’ve seen it this low,” she said. “I’ve never been able to walk across it.”

She said parts of the river looked like a grassy plain.

“It’s wild,” she said. But “not not too shocking, with the weather we’ve been having.”


Water levels at certain points in the Charles River at Millennium Park. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22. Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.