Drought Produces Region’s Driest Summer Since 1956
The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 27, 2016, by Stephanie Murray
Southampton farmer Tom Bashista doesn’t bother with insuring his crops.
What’s the use, he says, of spending all your earnings from a good year on insurance, waiting for a bad year to come along?
He’s standing next to an apple tree in the orchard that has borne the Bashista name since 1926. The sun is strong, the air is hot and thick with humidity like it has been all summer. In the shop, there’s an apple cake in the oven. The smell is infectious and sugary sweet.
The scents, the trees, and the time of year are all tell-tale signs that apple-picking season is just around the corner.
But the tree Bashista is standing next to already looks half-picked. His more than 1,000 trees, which produce more than 50 varieties of apples, grew half their usual amount of fruit this year.
“The apples we have are good,” Bashista said. “There’s just not enough of them.”
With 75 percent of the state in a severe drought, it’s a bad year.
This summer’s drought has impacted everything from plant and animal species to local colleges, where officials are scrambling to implement prudent water-use policies before students arrive back on campus. Communities across the region have implemented voluntary and mandatory water bans as a result of below-average rainfall in June, July and August.
And the water shortage is not going away anytime soon. Drought-like conditions are expected to persist in Massachusetts (excluding parts of Berkshire County) until the end of November, according to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center.
Bashista, a fourth-generation farmer at Bashista Orchards, said he cannot remember a summer this dry in his 54 years living on the land. That makes sense, because western Massachusetts has not experienced a summer this dry since 1956, according to the National Weather Service in Taunton.
Lack of Rain
According to Leonore Correia, spokeswoman for the weather service, this is the 28th driest summer on record, judging by data taken at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut.
The area is down 3.45 inches from the average rainfall in June, July and August, Correia said. On average, the region sees 11.85 inches of rain in these summer months. As of Friday, only 8.4 inches of rain have fallen in June, July and August combined.
In June, rain totals were 2.01 inches, down from the 3.8-inch average. In July, the rainfall total was 2.2 inches, down from the 3.69-inch average. The month of August has been on the upswing, seeing 4.19 inches of rain as of Friday. The total has already exceeded the region’s 3.97-inch average rainfall for August.
“August was more positive than July was,” said Duane LeVangie, director of water management for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “With more rain, the stream flow value rebounded. But it could drop pretty quickly if we don’t see more rain.”
As of Friday, the Quabbin Reservoir was 85.7 percent full, according to state Energy and Environmental Affairs spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke. The Quabbin is within the normal operating range for this time of year, she said.
The state Drought Management Task Force — comprised of state, federal and local officials — met Thursday to discuss the drought. Although the western portion of the state has seen improvements, the task force did not update the region’s “drought advisory” status, LeVangie said. The drought status levels are adjusted on a monthly basis and were last updated Aug. 12, according to a statement from the Department of Environmental Protection.
“Droughts happen, but a drought watch is rare. It’s pretty infrequent over the 15 years we’ve had the drought plan,” LeVangie said. “This is truly an exception.”
A drought watch is declared when extremely low groundwater and stream flow levels result from prolonged periods of precipitation deficit, including a lack of snowfall in the winter months, according to a statement from the state department of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The next step up is a drought advisory, which warrants closer tracking by government agencies. Western Massachusetts currently falls into this category. A drought warning, determined by consecutive months of groundwater, stream flow and reservoir levels being below normal, requires the most intense monitoring and the implementation of water restrictions.
Western Massachusetts has fared better than the eastern part of the state. The department of Energy and Environmental Affairs issued a drought warning for Central and Northeast Massachusetts Aug. 12, up from a drought watch the previous month. In Boston, 2016 marks the driest summer on record, according to Correia.
The U.S. Drought Monitor expanded the area considered to be in “extreme drought” to include Boston, much of Northeastern Massachusetts and parts of southern New Hampshire.
Despite the drought, Quonquont Farm Manager Leslie Harris is gearing up for apple-picking season, which begins Saturday at the farm in Whately.
“The apple crop looks good. The trees are a little lighter, but it’s still great fruit,” Harris said.
While her apple crop has fared well, she worries about the impact the drought will have on crops next year, especially after observing symptoms of stress on her trees, like closing leaves and dropping fruit. Harris said she is hoping for a snowy winter. Ideally, the melting snow would soak the soil and get the trees off to a healthy start in the spring.
“It’s hard to tell. It depends on the snow,” Harris said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
In addition to crops, the drought can take its toll on wildlife, including salamanders and tadpoles, according to Scott Jackson, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts who is a wildlife biologist with a particular interest in reptiles, amphibians and fish.
According to Jackson, species could lose an entire year of their population from vernal pools that have dried up too early in the season. He pointed to spotted salamanders and wood frogs as vulnerable populations.
If critters in the region reside in more established bodies of water, they have a better chance of survival, Jackson said. But for populations that live near developments and see their habitats dry up before they are mature enough to live on land, the drought could be deadly.
Jackson said he has seen turtles out and about well into the summer. It’s a behavior typical in June, but seeing turtles wandering about in August indicates they could be looking for sources of water because their usual haunts have dried up. When their habitat is crisscrossed by roads, Jackson said, turtles risk being hit by cars.
The drought has caused lower, warmer water levels in streams, which cases stress on cold water fish, too. Jackson said the region could see a dip in the brook trout population because of the drought.
“The ecosystem and species are able to cope with drought in general,” Jackson said, but added that areas with human development have a harsher impact on the animal population.
Ticks and Dry Weather
According to a recent report by the Associated Press, deer ticks are disappearing across the Northeast amid the ongoing drought. From Maine to Rhode Island, researchers say they expect tick numbers to be down from previous years. Blacklegged ticks, known as deer ticks, which transmit Lyme disease have likely taken a significant hit, though it’s too early to say whether fewer ticks could mean a decline in Lyme disease cases.
Some 30,000 confirmed cases are reported each year across the country and those numbers have steadily risen, according to the news agency’s report.
Ticks struggle to survive when the humidity drops below 85 percent. This summer, scientists say, they are being killed off by the drought or abandoning their favorite haunts on tree branches, bushes and tall grass awaiting a host, known as questing, for the cooler confines of the soil. Predicting how big of an impact the drought will have on the tick population is challenging because ticks are so hardy and go through several life stages over two years.
For Jackson, the UMass wildlife professor, a summer-long drought is not particularly concerning. But a drought that spans years — like the five-year ongoing drought in California — is a different story.
“With climate change, you never know what’s going to happen,” Jackson said. “The past is not an indication of expectations for the future … I wonder if it’s going to turn around again, or if we’re in the beginning stages of something like California, which is a huge disaster.”
A number of brush fires have burned around the region this summer. In Pelham, a lightning strike likely caused a fire that burned about 2 acres and required a major response from local fire departments. LeVangie said the drought may make fires more difficult to control because “the fuel on the ground is so much drier than it normally is.”
The Department of Environmental Protection is also concerned that tree cover may fall sooner than usual because dry weather is causing stress to the trees, LeVangie said. Foliage has taken a hit, with trees leaves looking drier and browner than they typically do this time of year, he added.
Wait for Crops to Rebound
Back in Southampton, the drought has a bright side, Bashista said. Though his apples are less plentiful and a bit smaller, they are more flavorful this year.
Overwatering can dilute the flavor of apples, and that certainly is not a problem this year. Bashista’s most mature apple trees have deep roots and are able to suck water deep from the soil.
With no irrigation system, Bashista and his two orchard workers water the younger apple trees by hand. Around the trunk of younger trees, Bashista has carved a sort of bowl in the soil to concentrate the water directly to the roots. With less water, he’s had to prune less overgrowth off the trees.
“It’s not all bad,” Bashista said. “Usually, we end up with a surplus of apples. We plant way more than we need, so in a bad year, we have just enough.”
Bashista said he will have plenty of apples for the pick-your-own season, which starts at Bashista Orchards the second week in September. He said he will have plenty of apples to satisfy apple pickers, fuel apple cider production and baked goods like apple cider donuts and pies.
Bashista said he has not laid off employees as result of the drought. After several weeks of unusual weather in February, he knew he would not have a bountiful peach crop so he did not hire as many people initially. He said he’s hoping for a snowy winter, so when the snow melts in the spring, it will soak the soil and get the trees off to a good start.
Until then, Bashista said he’ll be waiting for a good year.
“I wait for the crops to come around,” Bashista said. “You spend it when you have it. I just won’t make repairs on the barns until next year.”