The drought of 2016 … continues. And with cloudless blue skies and rising temperatures, it’s likely to get worse.
Already considered severe along Rhode Island’s south coast and throughout much of Massachusetts, water authorities worry it will get worse without a sustained period of substantial rain.
Farmers are feverishly watering crops from private wells, while others are mourning the loss of stone fruit crops to sub-zero temperatures in mid-February that an Associated Press story in the spring characterized as “the Valentine’s Day massacre of peach blooms.”
It’s the flip side of what’s happening in the U.S. South, specifically southern Louisiana. There, floods have claimed lives and millions and millions of dollars of property. The drought in the Northeast pales in comparison to the rains of the south.
But droughts cannot be minimized and the impact, particularly over the long term can damage crops, lead to deaths among animals, illness and a major danger to large brush fires and the ability to fight major fires generally, according to many sources.
Last week, Governor Gina Raimondo issued a drought advisory, with many water authorities throughout the state imposing restrictions, most notably even/odd outdoor watering.
Paul Corina, Westerly’s Superintendent of Utilities (which oversees the town’s three aquifers), would have liked that advisory issued earlier, and sees the drought as serious.
If the lack of rain continues, he foresees more stringent restrictions, perhaps limiting outdoor water usage to one or two days a week, or prohibiting outdoor usage completely.
At present, for most communities, restrictions only apply to residential use. Those businesses that rely upon water – car washes, golf courses, landscapers – are currently exempt from restrictions.
For residential users, first offense is usually a warning, followed by a fine.
The Water Board is also recommending that residents refrain from watering lawns during the hottest part of the day (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.); sweeping driveways, sidewalks and steps, instead of spraying with a hose; using swimming pool covers when pools are not in use to avoid evaporation; checking load size when washing laundry or dishes to ensure the machines are not using more water than necessary.
According to the Rhode Island Water Resources Board, precipitation over the last two months in five of the state’s drought regions was less than 65 percent of normal, with the remaining regions at 66 percent and 72 percent; as of August 4, the Palmer Drought Severity Index characterized the drought in Rhode Island as moderate (that was more than two weeks ago); streamflow levels have been below normal for three consecutive months (May – July}; and groundwater levels were below normal for two of the last three months (June and July).
The real damage to fruit crops, however, is the result of the February freeze, virtually killing off the peach crop from central New Jerey to Vermont. A mid-winter warm spell, followed by two deep freezes, virtually killed off the peach crop for much of the Northeast.
Nancy Parker Wilson of Middletown’s Greenvale Vineyards says mature grapes’ roots run deep enough to find adequate water during the drought, but that new vines will suffer. More devastating was the deep freeze. As a result, she says, Greenvale expects to harvest about half of what is its normal crop. She says quality should not suffer, and the lower yield should not increase prices.
While perhaps unrelated to the drought, dams at Newport’s reservoirs are now classified as “unsafe,” with eight a “high hazard,” and the ninth, “significant hazard,” according to the state office of Compliance & Inspections, a division of the Department of Environmental Management. The reservoirs are located in the three Aquidneck Island communities, and Tiverton and Little Compton.
State and city officials believe the language makes it appear the situation is more alarming, since vegetation makes it difficult for inspectors to make a visual inspection of the dams.
The city’s Department of Utilities has asked the City council to approve a contract to address regulatory compliance at most of the dams, and a contract was hired previously to repair the other dams.