By Mike Dietz
Connecticut is not the first place that would likely come to mind if I asked you to come up with a part of the country that experiences drought; the desert southwest and California might typically be first on the list. However, southern New England has received less than normal amounts of precipitation for the past several years, and the impacts are being felt. Some homeowners with shallow wells are running out of water, a reservoir in Massachusetts got so low that it had to be taken off line, and water restrictions have been implemented in some areas. And for the first time ever, the governor has issued a drought watch for 6 of our 8 counties.
Let’s take a quick look at our annual precipitation totals over the last 120 years. As can be seen in Figure 1 (data from the interactive NOAA website), annual precipitation in Connecticut can be quite variable. Our “normal” annual precipitation is around 47 inches per year (horizontal line in graph). We have had many years with less than normal precipitation, and a prolonged drought in the 1960s. The last four years have all been below normal, and 2016 is looking to finish in that category as well.
What does it actually mean to be in drought condition? For Connecticut, there are several criteria used to make this decision, which can be seen on the State of Connecticut water status page:
- Precipitation: three or more cumulative months below 65% of normal
- Groundwater: five or more consecutive months below normal
- Stream Flow: four out of five months below normal
- Drinking Water Reservoirs: September statewide average at 78.5% of normal
- Palmer Drought Severity Index: -3.0 to -4.0 or less (severe to extreme drought)
- Crop Moisture Index: criteria not triggered
- Fire Danger: High (can vary daily)
The State Drought Preparedness Plan is also available on this page (did you know we had one of these? I didn’t…). The criteria used to determine our drought status cover a wide range of areas; it is not just about how much rain we have had recently. It becomes clear after looking at this list just how much we depend on rainfall to support our existence in this region. Our drinking water supplies and agricultural production in the state are heavily dependent on regular precipitation. This is quite different from the Western U.S. where winter snowpack or large river systems provide irrigation and municipal water.
The U.S. Drought Monitor provides information on national drought conditions. A number of different indices are used to determine the classifications from “Abnormally Dry” to “Exceptional Drought”. Parts of Connecticut are currently classified as being in Extreme Drought, where major crop losses and water shortages/restrictions are possible. Agricultural producers can be extremely vulnerable to drought, as many in this area are dependent on natural precipitation to water their crops. UConn Extension is currently working with agricultural producers in the Connecticut to help them become more resilient to drought. More information on this project can be found at http://water.extension.uconn.edu.
What can you do? If you are on a public water system, your supplier may have already sent you information on how to reduce your consumption to ensure adequate supplies for all. The Regional Water Authority has tips on their website. If you have a shallow well, you will want to pay close attention to your water system, and contact a well contractor if you believe you are running out of water. Any of the tips on the website above will help to reduce your consumption and ensure that you have adequate water for your home.
It is uncertain at this point when this drought will end. Changing climate may be exacerbating this problem; both more extreme precipitation totals and extended periods of drought are expected for southern New England. For now, I will watch hopefully out the window to see if today’s rain will bring some much needed relief.