Drought in Connecticut? Who Knew?

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.

Figure 1. Annual precipitation in Connecticut, 1895 - 2015.

Figure 1. Annual precipitation in Connecticut, 1895 – 2015.

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:

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 prodrought1vides 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.

Water Solutions

Rosa Raudales in greenhouse
Photo: Kara Bonsack

Irrigation and plant pathogens, or infectious organisms, in water are recurring themes for Rosa Raudales, an Assistant Professor of Horticulture and Greenhouse Extension Specialist. Rosa’s first job was on a plantain irrigation project in Honduras. As an undergraduate, her thesis focused on pathogens in hydroponic systems, where plants are grown in a soilless system. Rosa researched biological controls, water treatments, and plant pathogen controls during her graduate studies.

At UConn, Rosa builds off the foundation she created; with applied research focusing on using low-quality water for irrigation, and developing management strategies to control microbes and unwanted chemicals in irrigation water. A holistic, multidisciplinary approach addressing biological, chemical and physical parameters of water quality is developed for each project. Rosa then delivers science-based information to growers, solving plant health and horticulture issues with efficient and sustainable practices.

An integrated research team from the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) is partnering with faculty from the School of Engineering on a project called Smart-Resource Grids: Exploring Technical Solutions to Grand Challenges at the Water-Energy-Food Nexus. The project is funded through the UConn Office of the Provost.

Richard McAvoy, Department Head of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture is project director. Rosa is one of 14 faculty members on the project, and water thrust co-leader with Tim Vadas from the School of Engineering. By building a smart-resource micro grid on the Storrs campus, researchers can study how water, food, and energy relate to one another and find synergistic relationships.

The UConn grant funds are developing infrastructure that demonstrates how wastewater can sustain agriculture. Reclaimed water will be used for irrigation and bio-solids from the wastewater will be used to produce energy. A gasifier owned by the School of Engineering will generate energy from the bio-solids in the form of natural gas. The gas can then be used to generate heat or electricity for use in the greenhouse, or the energy can be used someplace else where demand is needed on the grid.

Connecticut regulations indicate that reclaimed water cannot touch the soil. Greenhouses can have closed-loop irrigation systems, which have zero runoff. Using reclaimed water conserves resources and allows treated water to serve a purpose.

“The broader application is in becoming more efficient on how we utilize resources,” Rosa says. “Using what is considered waste in other industries, as an agricultural input, puts less pressure on natural resources. We will also produce energy from solid-waste. Our team added the food component with the idea of designing the integrated cities of the future, where nothing is wasted. The project will give cities that already treat wastewater an option on how to use it safely, while growing food locally.”

Space and resources are limited in many areas, including food deserts, but there is often a water treatment facility. Food could be grown in these areas using technology and efficiencies developed by the UConn team. Economists on the project are researching feasibility and practical application.

“My role on this project is to evaluate how to grow crops effectively by balancing nutrition and preventing biofouling on the pipes,” Rosa mentions. “The outreach component consists on understanding how to facilitate adoption of our system and developing a system that is feasible for cities to integrate.”

The USDA Critical Agricultural Research and Extension (CARE) Project is a $200,000 grant. Rosa is collaborating with Jeff McCutcheon from the School of Engineering, and Richard McAvoy and Michael O’Neill of CAHNR. The project looks at why horticultural farms are not using low quality water sources, and barriers for adoption (sidebar, at right).

Water quantity is a national priority. The Agricultural Water Security grant is co-sponsored by the Connecticut Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and UConn Extension. Rosa collaborates with Michael O’Neill, Michael Dietz, and Angie Murdukhayeva of UConn Extension. Associate Dean Michael O’Neill is project director.

The RCPP project will identify how much water agriculture uses, and risks of different operations in the event of severe drought. During the first phase, the team is looking at how water is being used at operations. The second phase will develop drought management plans for different types of operations through technical support and financial assistance.

Rosa is applying for more grants to build off her current research. One thing is certain, as she continues to tie research to real life, the questions related to food, security, water conservation, and energy resources will be answered.

Water Conservation Tips

dripping tap

We’re having a dry summer in Connecticut. There are many simple steps for you to conserve water at home, including:

- Taking shorter showers

- Running dishwashers and laundry machines with full loads

- Shutting off water while washing dishes, shaving, brushing teeth, and lathering up to wash hands, rather than running the water continuously

- Avoid washing vehicles, or power-washing homes and other buildings

- Not using water to clean sidewalks, driveways, and roads

- Reducing as much as possible the watering of lawns, recreational and athletic fields, gardens, or other landscape areas

- Not using public water to fill residential pools

- Promptly repairing any leaks

Three Connecticut Projects Selected for RCPP Funding

RCPP pic2
(l to r) Congressman Joe Courtney, Last Green Valley Ex. Dir. Lois Bruinooge, NRCS Chief Jason Weller, Commissioner of Ag Steven Reviczky, NRCS State Conservationist Lisa Coverdale, DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee, Associate Dean UConn CANR Mike O’Neill, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, Dean UCONN CANR Gregory Weidemann, and Connecticut Association of Conservation Districts President Denise Savageau attend the announcement event at the State Capitol in Hartford.

“More than 600 pre-proposals were submitted nationwide. With so many strong proposals, the project selection process was extremely competitive,” said Lisa Coverdale, Connecticut State Conservationist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. “We are so very proud that three from Connecticut have been selected for funding. This is such an amazing opportunity to work with some really innovative groups, including some we’ve never had the opportunity to work with before.”

Chosen as a national project was a proposal submitted by the Connecticut Association of Conservation Districts which will address excess nutrients that have been identified as the primary cause of hypoxic conditions in Long Island Sound (impacting upland water resources within the watershed including areas of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont). The RCPP program will provide $10 million toward the project which will develop a comprehensive, whole-farm management certainty program for farmers in the area. The project will utilize both working lands and easement programs to improve soil health and nutrient management, establish community resiliency areas with a focus on enhancing riparian areas, and institute a land protection program to protect agricultural and forestry areas.
“RCPP puts our partners in the driver’s seat,” said Coverdale. “Projects are led locally, and demonstrate the value of strong public-private partnerships that deliver solutions to tough natural resource challenges.” 
“This grant is a major investment that will help preserve our treasured Long Island Sound for generations to come,” said Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-2). “The funding will enable local, state and federal partners to work together to protect the watershed across our region, improving the health of the Sound and strengthening our regional commitment to our environment.”
RCPP pic
Congresswoman DeLauro and Congressman Courtney congratulate UConn CAHNR Dean Greg Weidemann and Associate Dean Mike O’Neill in helping bring over $10 million in grant funding to Connecticut to address regional water quality and water quantity issues in the Long Island Sound watershed.

“This new funding gives the Long Island Sound a welcome and much-needed boost,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), Co-Chair of the Congressional Long Island Sound Caucus. “It will enable us to connect local, state and federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations, across the Long Island Sound watershed, and give them necessary resources to protect the Sound. In addition to protecting the natural beauty of the Sound, this helps create tourism and recreation jobs, bolstering our economy. This level of coordination and funding is unprecedented, and a great step forward for Connecticut.”


“For the strength of our regional economy and the long term health of our environment, preservation of the Long Island Sound and its watershed is imperative,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal. “Connecticut is leading the region in this vital effort to ensure our waterways, farmland and forests continue to thrive as we confront the looming challenge of climate change. This powerful collaboration will pay dividends for generations to come, and I look forward to continuing to support this important work.”


“This new initiative provides an incentive for local conservation districts, state and federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations to collaborate on a landscape scale program to protect Long Island Sound,” said Denise Savageau, President of the Connecticut Association of Conservation Districts. “The RCPP will allow us to better leverage resources and will serve as a catalyst for new public-private partnerships within the watershed.”


“This multi-organization initiative provides land use managers the tools and resources to make a significant positive impact on conditions affecting Long Island Sound and its tributaries,” said Jeff Folger, Chair of the Connecticut Council on Soil and Water Conservation.


“The Connecticut River Watershed Council is pleased to be one of the project partners that will be using the RCPP award to improve the health and vitality of both the Connecticut River and the Long Island Sound,” said Andrew Fisk, Executive Director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council. “These two iconic New England waterbodies contribute mightily to the quality of life and the economy of New England, so we are proud to be working with landowners to help them do their part to restore and protect the public’s water.”


“The Nature Conservancy is excited to be part of the Long Island Sound Watershed Regional Conservation Partnership Program,” said Kim Lutz, Director of the Conservancy’s Connecticut River Program. “These funds will provide critical dollars to address conservation needs in two connected natural systems that are priorities for the Conservancy: the Long island Sound and the Connecticut River systems. We’re especially happy to have the opportunity to expand our work helping improve resilience in the face of a changing climate. The Conservancy is extremely grateful to Congressman Joe Courtney, of Connecticut’s 2nd District, and Congressional representatives throughout the multistate Long Island Sound watershed for support of this funding. We look forward to working with the NRCS and a diverse array of partners throughout the region to achieve the projects’ ambitious goals.”


“Long Island Sound is one of the Northeast’s greatest natural resource and deserves our protection and preservation,” said DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee.  “As it is a regional resource, it requires regional efforts to ensure its health – the funding we are receiving today will help make this happen.” 
“Protecting the shellfish-rich waters of Long Island Sound by helping farmers implement best-management practices on working farmlands is critical to sustaining the growth of Connecticut’s thriving agricultural economy,” state Department of Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said. “This funding will help ensure that these vital natural resources continue to produce both healthy food for consumers and a prosperous living for our hardworking farmers and other agricultural producers. I applaud the NRCS for this innovative approach that leverages resources and enlists the collaboration of all involved stakeholders.”
“We are thrilled to be part of this pivotal legacy initiative,” said Highstead Conservation Director Emily Bateson. “Highstead works with 20 public-private conservation collaboratives across the Long Island Sound Watershed who now have an opportunity to partner with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to dramatically increase land and clean water protection for future generations.”
Two additional state projects were selected for funding:
  • Achieving Agricultural Water Security in Connecticut through RCPP was submitted by the University of Connecticut. Partners will utilize $400,000 in RCPP funds to work with producers to help optimize food production, improve irrigation efficiency, reduce impacts of drought, and become economically resilient in the face of greater climate variability.
  • Improving Soil Health and Water Quality in the Thames River Watershedwas submitted by The Last Green Valley. Partners will utilize $400,000 in RCPP funds work to improve soil health and water quality in the Thames River Watershed. The long-term objective is to implement soil health conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program on 1,000 acres of cropland and show a measurable improvement of edge-of-field and in-stream water quality, including a decrease in nutrient and turbidity levels. 
Projects not selected in this first year may be eligible in subsequent years. The next announcement of program funding for FY 2016 will be made later this year. For more information on Connecticut RCPP projects, visit the Connecticut NRCS website, or view the full list of projects on the National NRCS website.

World Soil Day

WSD_POSTER_ENToday is World Soil Day! Did you know? Soil is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production and for services to ecosystems and human well-being. It is the reservoir for at least a quarter of global biodiversity, and therefore requires the same attention as above-ground biodiversity. Soils play a key role in the supply of clean water and resilience to floods and droughts. The largest store of terrestrial carbon is in the soil so that its preservation may contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Soils also serve as a platform and source for construction and raw materials. The maintenance or enhancement of global soil resources is essential if humanity’s need for food, water, and energy security is to be met.

10 Water Conservation Tips

faucet_Iowa State
Photo: Iowa State

Even with yesterday’s rain, it will take a while for water levels to catch up. There are many small steps we can all take to conserve water in our homes.

  1. Take shorter showers
  2. Run dishwashers and washing machines with full loads
  3. Use water only as needed when washing dishes, shaving, and brushing teeth.
  4. Fix leaky faucets – a leaky faucet can waste 20 gallons or more per day. Verify your home is leak free by checking your water meter before and after a one-hour period when no water is being used. If the reading on the meter isn’t exactly the same, there is a leak somewhere.
  5. Install a displacement device in the toilet tank; it will cut down on the amount of water needed per flush.
  6. Don’t wash cars, driveways, sidewalks or other areas that can wait until water levels are restored. Avoid power washing buildings as well. Use a broom and dustpan to clean sidewalks, decks and porches when possible.
  7. Consider adding a rain garden to your landscape. Watch this webinar for more information.
  8. As you replace appliances (toilets, dishwasher, and washing machine), make energy efficient choices.
  9. Have a water-wise lawn and garden. UConn Extension has these ten tips for your lawn and garden.
  10. In the warmer months, raise the thermostat on air conditioners when no one will be in the space for several hours.


Salt of the Earth

UConn Extension’s Center for Land Use Education And Research (CLEAR) provides information, education and assistance to Connecticut’s land use decision makers, community organizations and citizens on how to better protect natural resources while accommodating economic growth.

Read Michael Dietz’s blog post about road salt at the CLEAR website.

One of UConn’s salt piles.