Massachusetts is experiencing its worst drought in more than a decade, officials said Thursday, with little reprieve in sight for dried-out rivers, damaged crops, and water shortages across the state.
Much of the region is suffering a "severe drought," according to the US Drought Monitor, while the persistent lack of rainfall has left the Merrimack Valley area in "extreme drought," the most severe designation in Massachusetts since the group began mapping drought conditions in 1999.
The impact has been substantial — a loss of crops, a substantially increased risk of brush fires, trees shedding their leaves with fall still weeks away.
At a meeting of the state's Drought Management Task Force, state officials said conditions have reached a point where water conservation is critically important.
"Every region of the state is in some drought condition or the other," said Vandana Rao, associate director of water policy for the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "We really need to get the message out there that we are in the middle of a drought and all of us need to be mindful of how much water we are using."
After months of unusually dry weather, the task force recommended issuing a drought warning for Central and Northeast Massachusetts, now under a drought watch.
"I think it's a good idea for the central and northeast going into the warning because we're at the high end of all those watch categories, and there's nothing saying we'll have a wet fall," said Alan Dunham, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
More than 140 communities have issued restrictions on outdoor water use. The area considered in severe drought covers part of central Middlesex County northwest of Boston and a slice of Essex County.
The city of Lawrence has a rain deficit — the difference between the average rainfall and actual rainfall — of more than 8 inches over the past six months, said National Weather Service meteorologist Lenore Correia. Boston, which remains in the severe drought category, has a deficit of more than 5 inches.
Massachusetts last went through a severe drought in 2002, according to the National Weather Service.
The extremely dry weather has caused sections of the Ipswich River to run dry far earlier than usual [Story, B3], and sparked frequent brush fires in Concord. On Wednesday, a long-overdue rainfall helped control a fire in the town forest that might have otherwise caused substantial damage, given the dry conditions.
The drought and resulting water restrictions have wreaked havoc on agriculture, especially cranberries, among the state's largest food crops.
While cranberry farmers have a small advantage because the fruits have a later harvest than other crops, it will take a lot of rain to make up for such a prolonged shortage, said Brian Wick, executive director of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association.
"I've talked to several growers about this and we're having a hard time remembering a time when we haven't had rain up to this point," Wick said. "Droughts in August are common, but not in June and July."
Growers are trying to remain optimistic, he said, and hold out hope for a few August storms. But this month is crunch time, he added.
While the state received some much-needed rain Wednesday, and the forecast calls for a chance of scattered showers this weekend, Dunham told state officials that even a decent amount of rain would only put a minimal dent in the shortage.
The severe drought and warm, humid weather has also tricked trees into shedding leaves earlier than usual.
"It's obvious everywhere," said Peter Wild, owner of Boston Tree Preservation, a Woburn company that specializes in tree health. "When you don't have rain, a tree's physiology system doesn't work efficiently."
"It's a defense mechanism," said Mandy Bayer, an assistant professor of landscape and horticulture at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "They're stressed, so they're coloring up and losing leaves to preserve what they can."
State environmental officials issued a drought warning July 1, prompting several cities and towns to put in place restrictions on outdoor watering of lawns, plants, and trees. By last week, more than 60 percent of the state was considered to be in severe drought.
The dry conditions have led to more brush fires. Alan Dionne, deputy for the Salem Fire Department, called this summer one of the driest in the past 20 years.
"It's evident when you look at the plant life and the woodland areas," Dionne said. "The brush is somewhat dried and wilted in many areas, and the ground cover is extremely dry."
This week, a brush fire burned more than 20 acres of the Salem Woods, he said.
David Celino, the chief forest fire warden for the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation, called the Salem fire a "heads-up" moment in the summer fire season.
"We don't typically get that kind of fire growth," said Celino, who sent state crews to help suppress the fire. "That's kind of a heads-up for us fire managers that, boy, things are really starting to transition to a major drought situation."