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Fish and other aquatic animals are paying the price of drought in Massachusetts

Herring from the Nemasket River in Middleborough, Mass. The ongoing drought has placed life-threatening stress on aquatic wildlife like river herring and trout, experts say, and the only way to reverse the situation is by conserving more water.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston and much of the Bay State was finally greeted with rain in recent days. But don’t be fooled, we’re still in a drought. Little precipitation coupled with steamy temperatures this summer means rivers are drying up and water quality is declining.

And that’s dire news for the state’s aquatic species now paying the price.

As of Thursday, Sept. 8, four of the state’s six regions were experiencing critical drought conditions, while the other two are in significant drought, according to Massachusetts’ Drought Management Task Force. The scantily interrupted dry spell has placed life-threatening stress on aquatic wildlife like river herring and trout, experts say, and the only way to reverse the situation is by conserving more water.

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“If we want to sustain our drinking water supply and sustain aquatic wildlife, we are going to have to change our relationship to water,” said Samantha Woods, the executive director of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association in Norwell. “Water conservation needs to become a part of our culture, not just when it’s a drought.”

Woods said declining water levels within rivers make it difficult for fish like herring to migrate between streams. Herring is already on the decline due to decades of overfishing, pollution, and climate change, Woods said, so adding rapidly falling water levels and loss of habitat into the mix doesn’t bode well for the vulnerable fish.

Lisa Kumpf, river science program manager at the Charles River Watershed Association in Boston, said low water levels create stagnant river flow, which reduces the water’s quality by harboring pollutants like E. Coli bacteria and long-lasting, toxic chemical compounds known as PFAS. Kumpf said low water levels also cause temperatures to rise, decreasing the amount of dissolved oxygen crucial to many aquatic species’ survival, like river herring, trout, and clams.

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Due to this summer’s drought, some Charles River tributaries are seeing record low water levels while others have dried up completely, like Fuller Brook in Wellesley and parts of Huckleberry Brook in Milford , Kumpf said.

She said her group takes measurements of water depth in West Roxbury’s Millennium Park every month.

“August was our lowest measurement that we’ve ever recorded at that location,” Kumpf said. “These are the lowest levels that we’ve seen in an 84-year history and these trends are true throughout our watershed.”

Paul Beaulieu, secretary at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said trout is greatly threatened by drought. Disappearing tributaries means loss of habitat for the fish, making it more difficult to survive within the few water sources still suitable for them.

“The drought has shrunk the available cold water habitat to such an extent that brook trout have been forced into the few remaining deeper pockets of water where they are extremely vulnerable to predation by both avian and terrestrial predators,” Beaulieu said. “There has been, without a doubt, an impact on population numbers as a result.”

Fish and wildlife are generally well-adapted to “fluctuations in weather conditions, including harsh winters and droughts,” Nicole McSweeney, acting chief of information and education for Massachusetts’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife), told the Globe in an email. But extended drought conditions that alter their habitats can be dangerous.

“MassWildlife closely monitors fish communities to better understand the effects of drought on fish, and is conducting research to understand changing streamflow patterns and warming temperatures in streams statewide,” McSweeney said.

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The department also investigates reports of fish kills, or the localized death of fish populations. Anyone who observes a fish kill can report it to the state at 1-800-632-8075.

Experts said dam removal could serve as a temporary fix to the devastating effects of drought on aquatic life by restoring natural habitats and riverflow while preventing waters from heating up. But many agree a more permanent solution is creating consistent water conservation and drought management legislature across the state, and encouraging Massachusetts residents to adjust the way they use water.

Kumpf said advocates have been lobbying for Bill S.530, colloquially referred to as the drought management bill, which would empower the state’s Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to impose water conservation measures on a statewide level, rather than enforcing irregular policies between towns. The bill was referred to the senate in March.

In the meantime, Kumpf said residents can avoid using water for unnecessary purposes like watering lawns, restrict their use of water to before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. to avoid evaporation while the sun is at its strongest, and participate in grassroots advocacy to get fellow community members on the same page.

Woods said residents can also collect water in rain barrels or plant native, drought-resistant plants in their yards to help conserve water for the benefit of humans and aquatic life.

“I would suggest that people get involved in the management of their water supply and at the same time, hopefully advocate for a healthy environment,” Woods said. “I think the number one thing people can do is set an example.”

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Katie Mogg can be reached at katie.mogg@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @j0urnalistkatie