Metro

More than a third of Mass. in severe drought

Grass in front of a shopping center on Route 3A in Cohasset reflects a lack of water.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
It’s not unusual to see parched lawns across central and northeastern Massachusetts.

Yellowing lawns in Shrewsbury. Dried-out flowers in Danvers. And in Scituate, a town reservoir that is less than half full, its waters sinking more than 4 feet below the local highway that cuts it in half.

“It’s bare,” Nora Finnegan, a clerk in Scituate’s water department, said of the body that supplies the city’s water.

After months of low rainfall and shrinking streams, more than a third of the state — all in central and northeastern Massachusetts — is in a “severe drought,” according to the United States Drought Monitor’s classifications released Thursday. That region has seen about 5 inches less rainfall than usual.

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Roughly another third is in moderate drought, and the last third, encompassing the westernmost part of the state and Cape Cod, is “abnormally dry.” Only 0.7 percent of the state has no drought status.

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On the state level, the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs put central and northeastern Massachusetts on drought watch at the start of the month — only the second time it has issued that designation, the third most severe of four levels of drought, since 2001.

“Things just aren’t blooming fully,” said Mary Ann Ferrell, president of the Garden Club of Concord. “Lawns are really brown, ours included.”

The state designation has little effect on local governments, which are responsible for controlling their own water supplies and implementing water restrictions. But more than 120 towns across Massachusetts already have put mandatory water restrictions in place, and are eyeing further measures if rain doesn’t arrive.

In Concord, officials have warned residents that if they don’t comply with water restrictions, the town’s firefighting capabilities may be hampered. Scituate residents are only allowed to water lawns by hand, not with sprinklers. In Shrewsbury, even manual watering isn’t allowed anymore. Pools can only contain 2 inches of water — small consolation for anyone looking to take a dip this summer.

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“We’re just waiting for rain, praying for rain,” Scituate water superintendent Sean Anderson said.

Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office, urged extra caution with cigarette disposal, barbecue pits, and other open flames, given the “tinder-dry” conditions.

Boston residents, who draw their water from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs, have little to worry about, said Massachusetts Water Resources Authority spokeswoman Ria Convery — together, the reservoirs hold enough water for six years even if it stopped raining altogether. But the city’s water and sewer commission is still encouraging Bostonians to save water, providing free low-flow shower heads and dye tabs to help detect toilet leaks.

Reactions to calls for water conservation have been mixed.

In Newton, which hasn’t implemented mandatory water restrictions, several sprinklers rotated slowly on well-manicured lawns Thursday afternoon, even as a light drizzle fell. But other residents of the town, which is located in the severe drought region, said they want to be proactive.

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“I just feel that’s an awful waste of our water,” said Jeanne White, 79. She pointed to the tangle of weeds growing in her backyard and joked that she is letting nature take its course. She hasn’t watered her grass, she said, because “that just seems futile.”

In Needham, where residents are only allowed to use sprinklers twice a week, the town’s public works department has sent out 800 warning letters to violators since the restriction was instituted in May, department director Richard Merson said. Several residents, ignoring the letters multiple times, have been slapped with $200 fines.

Footprints were visible in the mud at the Scituate town reservoir.
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe
Footprints were visible in the mud at the Scituate town reservoir.

“Yeah, they’re generally not too happy about the situation,” Merson laughed. They’re about to be even unhappier: Merson said the town soon plans to limit sprinklers to just once a week.

A picture-perfect summer lawn may be at stake for exacting homeowners, but for Massachusetts farmers, the water shortage threatens their livelihood.

Town water restrictions don’t directly affect farmers, many of whom rely upon their own, less expensive sources of water, such as on-site ponds, said Edward Davidian, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. But the drought has gone on so long that some of those ponds are drying up, too.

Farmers have been forced to install in-ground pumps to transport water.

“There’s a tremendous cost in keeping things wet,” Davidian said. “Mother Nature does it a lot cheaper than we can.”

Jack Kittredge, of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said he hasn’t heard of anyone losing a crop, but there’s no telling what will happen if rain doesn’t come soon.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a disaster yet,” he said. “But people are stretched.”

With the specter of climate change and future droughts on the horizon, farmers and towns are taking steps to ensure the viability of their long-term water supplies.

Kittredge said his organization has created a new carbon specialist position to study how farmers can better improve carbon, and thus water, retention in the soil.

Robert Tozeski, Shrewsbury’s water and sewer superintendent, said the town is considering supplementing its ground-water wells with water from the city of Worcester, although that would cost hundreds of thousands dollars more per year.

Rigid water restrictions so early in the summer have unfortunately become the new normal over the past few years, said Michael Nelson, director of operations for the Danvers department of public works.

But he had a word of reassurance for worried residents.

“We generally have plenty of water. We just don’t have enough for people to water their lawns,” he said. “We’re not going to run out of drinking water.”

Scituate town reservoir is about half full. It is considered full when it contains 155 million gallons of water.
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe
Scituate town reservoir is about half full. It is considered full when it contains 155 million gallons of water.

Vivian Wang can be reached at vivian.wang@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vwang3.