State officials have issued a drought watch for much of the central and northeastern portion of Massachusetts, including most of the Boston area, calling for people to conserve water and to be careful with outdoor burning and the disposal of smoking materials.
"Drought conditions can contribute to lasting agricultural, environmental, and economic impacts, and also raise serious public safety concerns," the secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Matthew Beaton, said in a statement.
A drought advisory has also been issued for the Connecticut River Valley and Southeastern Massachusetts, the statement said.
The four possible levels of drought declarations are, in order of severity, drought emergency, drought warning, drought watch, and drought advisory.
Only the westernmost part of the state and Cape Cod are not experiencing drought conditions, officials said.
The declarations were issued by the Drought Management Task Force, a group of state officials who convene when certain criteria — such as low precipitation levels, stream flow, and groundwater and reservoir levels — are met, said Duane LeVangie, water management chief for the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and a member of the task force.
The seven criteria are spelled out in the Massachusetts Drought Management Plan, which mandates that state agencies take certain actions as a drought progresses.
This year, one criterion, stream flow, was particularly concerning, LeVangie said. Record lows have been found in about 17 of 19 gauges across the state.
The state has never declared a drought warning or drought emergency, and a drought watch is rare. There has been only one other since the Drought Management Plan went into effect 16 years ago. That was in 2002, according to the Department of Conservation and Recreation's website.
The task force convened for over a year around that time, and the entire state was under a drought watch between March and May of 2002. Various watches and advisories weren't lifted until February 2003.
The task force convened last year, but conditions stabilized and didn't require a designation, LeVangie said.
The task force will now meet monthly to monitor conditions until the situation improves, LeVangie said.
The group will send information to affected municipalities. Many have already issued water restrictions, but they may tighten them as a result of the new declarations.
If conditions worsen, the task force could meet more often, LeVangie said. But it would take a substantial deterioration for a drought warning to be issued.
The state's drought watch comes just days after the US Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and university authorities, found large parts of Massachusetts to have drought conditions.