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Concerns mount as summer drought deepens in Massachusetts

This map shows the drought status in Massachusetts as of Aug. 9.Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

Lawns are scorched brown, and rivers are running dry. With increasing urgency, town officials are calling on residents to conserve water. Nearly three dozen brush fires have broken out in the past three weeks alone, the smell of smoke hanging in the air for miles.

Despite a burst of rain this week, which caused flooding in some parts of southeastern Massachusetts, the prolonged drought has deepened across Massachusetts during an extremely hot summer, with most of the state now facing “critical” conditions, one category below the most severe. On Tuesday, the state’s Drought Management Task Force recommended that Cape Cod also receive that designation, which urges residents and businesses to minimize water use and stop all non-essential outdoor watering.

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Vandana Rao, director of water policy for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said at a task force meeting on Tuesday that “the situation obviously is not looking great” but applauded the outdoor watering restrictions being adopted across the state.

“The thing we would want to continue to reiterate is that in other parts of the state where there’s no public water supply system and people are on wells, even private wells, they too need to exercise the same level of restraint,” she said. “We just don’t want wells drying up or having other issues where they can’t access the water they need.”

In Boston, less than 4 inches of rain has been recorded since June 1, said Alan Dunham, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Typically, the city would receive about 9.5 inches of rain during that time.

The drought has caused serious problems for farmers, with a potentially devastating impact on crop yield and fruit size. The state Department of Agricultural Resources recently announced that farmers in 12 counties would be eligible for emergency loans through the federal government.

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The bone-dry conditions have allowed brush fires to burn deep into the soil. David Celino, chief fire warden for the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, said that in the past week 35 fires had burned 188 acres of land. “That’s a lot for us in the middle of August,” he said.

In an average August, there would be fewer than 50 fires for the entire month, he said.

In recent days, Governor Charlie Baker activated the National Guard to help battle a brush fire that had been burning in Rockport for weeks, and a brush fire broke out in the Georgetown-Rowley State Forest. On Sunday, DCR officials said Breakheart Reservation, a popular trail system in Saugus, would be closed until Wednesday due to brush fires.

Celino said it will take a “season-ending event,” such as a tropical storm that brings two or three inches of rain, to end the cycle.

“That’s what you really need in rainfall, to saturate into the soil layers,” he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, presented pictures of dry riverbeds to illustrate the dire situation.

As she showed the photos, Blatt explained how the Cold River in Florida, a town in Berkshire County, had been reduced to “a trickle.” The Ware River in Central Massachusetts was “just muck,” the Ipswich River was a series of “disconnected puddles,” and the Parker River in Georgetown was “completely dry.”

“We were sent videos that showed people trying to paddle the Blackstone [River] and they had to keep picking up their canoes and dragging them,” she said. “It really wasn’t navigable.”

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There is ample evidence that climate change is making droughts more frequent and severe, including in New England, according to NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency. Higher temperatures can speed up evaporation rates and leave soil parched, meaning Massachusetts can expect to have more dry days in the future, even if the region sees more rainfall overall.

Jennifer Pederson, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Works Association, emphasized the importance of informing the public about the drought and local watering restrictions.

“If their water system is asking for restrictions, it’s really important for the public to abide by those restrictions and make sure that you are paying attention to the social media and signboards,” she said.

This week, Worcester announced it was tightening restrictions with reservoirs having dropped to about 72 percent capacity. Under the new rules, irrigation systems cannot be used between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and city employees will contact hospitals, colleges, industrial facilities, and large apartment complexes to determine how they can go about using less water, officials said.

The restrictions are not likely to be relaxed, even with a “return to normal precipitation,” officials said.

Dharna Noor and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22. Bailey Allen can be reached at bailey.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @baileyaallen.