NORTH ANDOVER — With much of the state locked in a severe drought, Governor Charlie Baker urged the public on Thursday to restrict water use as officials extended support to farmers whose crops have been damaged by the withering conditions.
Massachusetts is facing its worst drought in more than a decade, and areas of “extreme drought” have extended across the northeast part of the state, according to the US Drought Monitor’s latest report, released Thursday. Before last week, officials had not declared an extreme drought in Massachusetts since the Drought Monitor began its surveys in 1999.
The extreme conditions have damaged the state’s agriculture and overall economy and require a broad, collective response, Baker said.
“This is a really big issue and this is a really big deal,” said Baker, standing in front of a strawberry field that has been stunted by the lack of rainfall. “Minimize your water usage both inside and outside your home. You can eliminate or limit watering your lawns, you can eliminate or limit washing your car.”
With the drought showing little sign of relenting, state officials are working to develop an emergency loan program to help affected farms and small businesses.
“All of us know the importance of farming in Massachusetts in terms of our food supply,” said Jay Ash, the state’s secretary of Housing and Economic Development. “We continue to emphasize to people that buying local is one of the best ways to help our farmers.”
Baker also urged consumers to buy from local farmers to help offset their losses.
“Massachusetts has been and continues to be one of the most significant states in the country . . . in terms of the amount of stuff we buy directly from farms,” he said. “And we should all remember that, as we go through the process of making our decision of what to buy and where to buy over the next couple of months.”
Baker and Ash spoke at a news conference held at Smolak Farms in North Andover, where the drought has taken a heavy toll. Corn crops have been ravaged, and newly planted Christmas trees, which were intended to be sold after a few years of growth, have died.
“This is the worst in my lifetime,” said Michael Smolak, who owns the farm. “It’s past the point of return for many crops.”
Secretary of Energy and Environmental affairs Matthew Beaton said the scope and severity of the drought make it imperative to integrate water-saving techniques into daily routines.
“While the steps we are asking folks to take may seem small and insignificant, I can assure you that their impact is collectively great,” he said.
As of Thursday, about 160 public water systems in Massachusetts had some water restrictions in place, said Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. In a typical year, that number is between 90 and 100.
Nearly 70 of those towns have the strictest parameters in place, allowing residents to use outdoor water one day a week or less.
“It increases almost everyday,” Coletta said. “Normally, you might see some issues at the end of August to September. But this year, because there was not really a lot of snow or precipitation during the spring, we started seeing issues in June and July.”
Last week, the state’s Drought Management Task Force issued a drought warning, the second-most serious designation, for much of Eastern and Central Massachusetts.
Despite the persistent lack of rain, Smolak said, not all of his crops are in danger. Irrigation systems have helped maintain his apples, vegetables, blueberries, raspberries, and melons over the dry stretch. And if rain finally does arrive in the coming weeks, there is still hope for the strawberries.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” he said.