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DROUGHT

Drought kills crops, sparks fires throughout New England

In Rhode Island, the impact on some crops could last well into next year, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Management.

Hay farmer Milan Adams releases a handful of dry soil in a recently plowed field, in Exeter, R.I., on Aug. 9.Steven Senne/Associated Press

It’s barely September, but crops are withering and brown leaves carpet the ground. Forests are bursting into flames. An iconic river is, in some places, little more than a mud-choked stream.

This isn’t the US West, where a historic megadrought is threatening supplies of food, drinking water, and hydropower. It’s the Northeast — a region where, for most people, the parched conditions are more nuisance than crisis.

But for farmers from New York to Maine, the dry weather has been nothing short of disastrous, and rainfall this week provided little relief.

In Rhode Island, the drought's impact on some crops could last well into next year, according to the state's Department of Environmental Management. In Massachusetts, the drought in late August was the most severe for that time of year in US government data going back to 2000.

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The Northeast’s plight is the latest example of the ways climate change is wreaking havoc on weather trends around the world, upending seasonal patterns that farmers have depended on for generations. While it doesn’t compare to the devastating water shortages plaguing the West, the drought poses a threat to the region’s hay, corn, and dairy industries, and it’s turbocharging the risk of wildfires.

In Rhode Island, farmers who can typically harvest hay three times in a season are expected to do so only once this year. Because each harvest varies in quality and size, that means losing about half the value of the entire crop, estimated Henry Wright, who grows about 300 acres of hay and corn.

The fields are in such poor condition that as the season winds down, Wright is unlikely to be able to reseed this fall. He’ll have to wait until next year, shortening the growing season. He expects the 2023 hay crop to be only 10 percent to 20 percent of the usual.

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"It's just not going to happen," said Wright, who's also president of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau. "This is really a desperate time."

In parts of Massachusetts in late August, the Charles River, which runs along Harvard University’s campus and is the site of a world-renowned annual rowing competition, shrank to a trickle. Near the Cochrane Dam on the border of Needham and Dover, the river mainly became a series of disconnected puddles and pools.

In Rhode Island, “We had fairly normal rainfall through June, then it just dropped off the edge of a table,” said Ken Ayars, chief of the agriculture and forest environment division at the state Department of Environmental Management.

At the family-owned Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in New York’s Hudson Valley, corn stalks that should be 6 or 7 feet tall are standing at only 2 feet, and many lack ears. Co-owner Rick Osofsky expects to harvest less than half the corn that was planted and about half the hay. The crops are used to feed their 300 cows, and now he’ll have to spend extra money on additional feed for the herd.

The drought also is affecting the quality of the feed that’s available, which will impact how much milk the cows produce. And because cows don’t sweat, they don’t do well in the heat, which can further affect their milk supply. Osofsky expects the herd’s output to be down about a fifth this year, shaving 20 percent off his annual profit which ranges from $300,000 to $400,000. And that’s excluding the additional expense of buying feed.

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"The whole dairy game is milk," Osofsky said. "It's making as much milk as we can as cheaply as we can. So this has made it terribly expensive to do."

The weather culprit is a high-pressure system that’s been parked atop the region, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the US Department of Agriculture. That can block cold fronts coming from Canada and the central US, or storms coming up from the South. All of that means less moisture for the Northeast.

More than 86 percent of Massachusetts is in severe to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, along with 65 percent of Rhode Island and 46 percent of Connecticut. Portions of New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont are in severe drought. The National Interagency Fire Center foresees an unusually high risk of significant wildfires in the Northeast this month.

The drought is hitting drinking water supplies, but the impact varies significantly across the region according to Samantha Borisoff, a climatologist with the Northeast Regional Climate Center. Some communities are restricting water use because their wells, which are typically fed by ground water and streams, are drying up. But bigger reservoirs like the Quabbin, which serves Boston and is 90 percent full according to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, have been less affected.

Some relief came from a deluge that hit the Northeast on Tuesday, but drought conditions persist. Sometimes the ground can get so hard from prolonged dry weather that the water just runs off, said Bob Oravec, a senior branch forecaster for the US Weather Prediction Center.

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While it’s tough to link any specific weather event to climate change, it’s clear that longstanding seasonal patterns are being disrupted, said Mark Richardson, director of horticulture at the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill in Boylston. In recent years, there have been seasons with far more rain than usual and years without enough.

"We don't have normal, average conditions any longer," said Richardson. "The trends have been toward chaos."

Trees have deep, extensive root systems that can better tap ground water, and have been less affected by the drought. But they’re still showing signs of distress across the region. Leaves are falling off early, and some are starting to change color earlier than usual.

However, the drought may not have much impact on the annual pilgrimage to see New England’s stunning fall foliage. The dry conditions are worse closer to the Atlantic coast, while many of the best areas for seeing blazing red, orange, and yellow leaves are farther up in northern New England.

“There will still be plenty of good leaf-peeping opportunities,” said the USDA’s Rippey.

Bloomberg’s Brian K Sullivan and Angel Adegbesan contributed to this report.