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Drought is an abnormally dry (moisture-deficient) condition that is a shift away from average conditions for a prolonged period of time. Abnormally dry conditions are caused by not enough rain (or snow), usually in combination with weather that is warmer than normal. Depending on a drought’s severity and duration, drought can affect a wide range of natural and human-built systems, and these impacts can last beyond the drought. 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.


Massachusetts is a relatively water-rich state. However, it has suffered several major statewide droughts. 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.


Drought is historically a slowly developing − and often long-lasting − event with cumulative impacts. However, the most recent 2016-2017 drought was characterized by a rapid decline in conditions from one month to the next, fitting the recently introduced concept of a “flash drought.”. It is anticipated that in the future, Massachusetts will experience more “flash droughts,” due to climate change.  The 2016-2017 drought was the most significant drought in Massachusetts since the 1960s. The National Weather Service reported rainfall was well below average, down to the mid-30s inches each year (annual rainfall in Massachusetts is normally about 44 inches). In many parts of the state, U.S. Geological Survey data for streamflow and groundwater reached new record low levels for several consecutive months.  

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. River systems must have healthy flows to sustain diverse aquatic life, and as climate change stresses these flows to new extremes, we must be as responsive as possible.  The Massachusetts Rivers Alliance worked with member groups to advocate for stronger Water Management Act regulations during the state’s “Sustainable Water Management Initiative” from 2010-2014, participated in the update of the Drought Management Plan (2019), and currently serves on the state’s Drought Management Task Force.


Founded in 2007, Mass Rivers works to strengthen statewide river policies in four areas: water quality, streamflow, wildlife habitat, and investment in green infrastructure.

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