Massachusetts drought entering its fourth week

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STATE HOUSE — Long, hot, rainless days mean plenty of time for people to enjoy the outdoors, but the mostly pleasant summer weather is disguising an underlying problem.

“I hope everybody has a chance to enjoy the rest of this beautiful summer,” Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday, before catching himself. “I get the fact that it’s creating drought issues okay, which we worry about a lot. I mean, there’s the downer,” the governor added.

Jennifer Pederson, executive director of the 1,100-member Massachusetts Water Works Association, which includes public works officials and consulting engineers, told the News Service this week that it’s the first time in her 10 years on the job that the state has advanced beyond a drought advisory into a drought watch.

“I think people are taking it pretty seriously,” said Pederson, noting the prevalence of voluntary and mandatory water restrictions and the ramping up of such restrictions as the drought drags on.

Citing “four continuous months of unusually dry weather,” Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton on July 8 issued a drought watch for the central and northeast regions and a drought advisory for the Connecticut River and southeast regions. The drought is retroactive to July 1.

A warning, the third of five drought conditions, is issued in connection with “extremely low groundwater and streamflow levels resulting from a precipitation deficit of nearly ten inches over the past 12 months, including a lack of snowfall.”

Beaton warned that drought “can contribute to lasting agricultural, environmental, and economic impacts, and also raise serious public safety concerns.” Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Director Kurt Schwartz earlier this month urged “extreme caution with outdoor burning,” saying the threat of wildfires had increased.

Worcester’s reservoir system was at 69.7 percent capacity on Wednesday. The average July 1 capacity is 95.7 percent and the average on Aug. 1 is 88.3 percent. Before the dawn of an extremely dry July, Worcester had received 17.1 inches of rain over the first half of 2016, down from the 24-year average of 24.6 inches.

“The reservoir capacity is now below the Stage 2 Drought Warning trigger level established in the Drought Contingency Plan and weather trends show little indications of relief,” Worcester officials wrote on the city’s website. “In order to assure the long term availability of water to meet critical health, safety and economic needs of the City it is necessary to implement further restrictions on non-critical outdoor water use and water wasting activities.”

According to the city’s mandatory outdoor irrigation schedule, properties with odd-numbered addresses may water no more than once on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays either before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Properties with even-numbered addresses may water no more than once on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays either before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. And no watering may occur between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on allowed watering days. Also, no residents are permitted to water on Mondays.

The city hopes to achieve a 10-15 percent reduction in water use.

Across Massachusetts, restrictions vary by water system and are influenced by Water Management Act permits, Pederson said, with more stringent conditions in place in systems with capacity and demand issues. Non-public water supply permit holders such as golf courses, industrial, commercial, or agricultural users have been advised to review their permits for water use restriction requirements.

In some communities, officials are having trouble because some water users are not abiding by restrictions, Pederson said. Fines have been issued in Billerica, she said.

More than 33 million people in the Northeast are living in drought areas, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The National Weather Service tweeted Thursday that “Rainfall deficits and drought continue to expand across the Northeast and southern Appalachians into the Southeast.”

The Massachusetts Drought Management Task Force is scheduled to meet next in Boston on Aug. 11.

— Written by Michael Norton

Copyright State House News Service