LOW FLOW & DROUGHT
Ipswich River 2016
Even water-rich New England experiences drought.
Due to severe drought conditions, 1 in 5 streams regularly run dry in the summer from excessive water withdrawals.
Abnormally dry conditions come when there's not enough rain or snow, made worse by warmer-than-usual weather. Drought can affect a wide range of natural and human-built systems, and these impacts can last long after the drought has dissipated. Examples of impacts to river systems include diminished quantity and quality of streamflow, groundwater, and surface water, which in turn affect aquatic life and habitat.
Drought impacts wildlife. Aquatic species are threatened when the waters they call home run low, sometimes resulting in gruesome fish kills. Species that depend on fish populations, like a wide variety of birds, are also threatened.
Drought impacts the economy. Many riparian communities have river-based economies, from recreational businesses who offer kayak and fishing supplies to our region's iconic shellfish industry that has employed generations of residents.
Drought impacts public health. Low surface water and groundwater supplies pose a threat to how much water we have available for drinking water and fire safety.
The nine-year drought from 1961-1969 is considered the “drought of record.” The longevity and severity of this drought forced public water suppliers to implement water-use restrictions, and numerous communities used emergency water supplies.
From 2016-2017, Massachusetts experienced a drought with rapid decline in conditions from month to month; what scientists refer to as "flash drought." This was the most significant drought in Massachusetts since the 1960s, with record low streamflow and groundwater levels (reported by the U.S. Geological Survey) and below average precipitation in the mid-30s inches each year, compared to the typical 44 yearly inches measured by the National Weather Service.
In 2020, we had another significant drought that lasted most of the year, setting the stage for the dry conditions we're already seeing in 2021. Climate change exacerbated this string of drought events, and will make them even more common in the future.
In Massachusetts, the Drought Management Task Force is responsible for recommending drought levels to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, who make the official declaration (the April 6 2021 declaration is to the right).
Martin's Brook, North Reading, 2016
How are we working on this issue at Mass Rivers?
We continue to work with our community and state partners to improve our state’s response to drought management and ensure that water conservation is prioritized. Massachusetts Rivers Alliance has a long track record in advocating for statewide drought management. Mass Rivers worked with member groups to advocate for stronger Water Management Act regulations during the state’s “Sustainable Water Management Initiative” from 2010-2014, and participated in the 2019 update of the Drought Management Plan. We currently serve on the state's Drought Management Task Force, the group that determines drought levels for Massachusetts.
We've also made drought our top legislative priority in the 2021-2022 session by advocating for H.898/S.530, An Act relative to maintaining adequate water supplies through effective drought management, sponsored by Senator James Eldridge and Representative Carolyn Dykema. Currently, municipalities implement their own water conservation measures during drought (for some, that's none at all), leading to a patchwork of policies that are confusing for residents to follow and have only a limited impact on overall water savings. This bill would give the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs the authority to require uniform water conservation for all water users across a drought region.
Early in 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection initiated a process to condition water registrations (water withdrawals from before 1980 that are larger than 100,000 gallons per day) to comply with water conservation measures set forth in the Drought Management Plan in order to keep water flowing in rivers and streams during drought. Mass Rivers joined that stakeholder group and will continue to encourage MassDEP to enact stronger drought prevention.
To remain resilient in the face of climate change and increased development, Massachusetts must rethink its drought management to be more efficient with our water resources in order to protect people, habitat, and our way of life.