By Daniel Brown, Heidi Ricci, and Stefanie Covino
The grass on the Common in front of the State House is brown. Plants and trees at Mass Audubon sanctuaries are looking a bit wilted. Community reservoirs are running low. It’s not your imagination. It’s been very dry.
Severe Drought in Massachusetts
About a third of Massachusetts is under severe drought. Another third is in a moderate drought, and the rest of the state is abnormally dry. Since roughly the beginning of the year, Massachusetts is about 5 inches below normal precipitation totals. That means we’ve seen 20-25% less precipitation than by this point in an average year. June 2016 ranked as the 12th driest on record since 1895. April through June ranked as the 14th driest.
US Drought Monitor map of MA July 2016
While the current level of drought is unpleasant and problematic, it’s certainly not unheard of. We’ve seen conditions like the current state of affairs 4 times since 1980 both in terms of short term and long term drought. So why all the attention now? The short answer is climate change.
Old Problems with a New Dimension
Many of the problems with water and land use in Massachusetts have been apparent for some time. Land use patterns in Massachusetts break the natural water cycle. Most new residential developments have wide roads, and big, thirsty lawns. Commercial and industrial parking lots, impervious to rain, reduce the amount of water that percolates back into the ground, leading to dry aquifers and streams. Meanwhile, demand on water supplies for residential, agricultural, and commercial use has led to the depletion of water across eastern Massachusetts and in many other locations.
Impacts to Nature and Public Health
If these land and water use trends continue, our seasonal water supply will be increasingly stressed with each drought. Rivers and streams will continue to dry up. The impacts on nature, including fish kills, algae blooms, and degraded habitat for other aquatic species like turtles, amphibians, and mussels, will become even more pressing.
Example of an algal bloom. Photo credit: MA Department of Environmental Protection
Climate Change and Future Drought Conditions
Climate change amplifies the existing challenges of land and water use. Most climate models project that summer drought conditions like this will become more frequent in the future. We can’t say this single drought is caused by climate change, but we can say climate change will make these types of dry periods more likely. And when the rains do come, it is more likely to be in intense downpours that can cause erosion, flooding and damage to infrastructure–especially in areas where pavement prevents the water from soaking into the ground and instead channels it into high-volume flows.
Using Droughts of Today to Prepare for Climate Change of Tomorrow
While these are troubling problems, there are realistic, practical solutions we can pursue, and there are positive actions we can take. If we want our communities to prepare responsibly for future water use and the challenges of climate change, droughts like this one can be used to directly identify what challenges may become more frequent or costly in the future. By addressing current problems that pop up during what is now a relatively infrequent set of conditions, we can better prepare for a future where those problems occur more often. It is an unfortunate teachable moment, but one that can help us learn how to better manage our natural resources.
Poor Farm Brook, Shrewsbury. The City of Worcester recently installed a rain garden to aid flow to this brook that borders both communities.
What You Can Do
- Most importantly, encourage your communities to protect open spaces and natural areas. In undeveloped areas, the most effective solution to climate change and drought is to let nature take care of itself.
- Encourage your community to utilize Low Impact Development (LID) options that provide the housing and jobs we need while making our cities healthier and more attractive.
- Urge your state legislators to support climate change preparedness and sustainable water management
- You can help by using water efficiently around your home and yard. Avoid nonessential uses car washing during the drought and collect rainwater all year long to use when you really need it. Let your grass grow a little taller, helping it grow long roots to retain moisture – and follow our State House’s example – let your lawn turn brown, and encourage your neighbors to do the same! When cooler weather comes, they’ll green turn once again
Daniel Brown is Climate Change Program Coordinator, Heidi Ricci is Senior Policy Analyst, and Stefanie Covino is Project Coordinator, Shaping the Future of Your Community Program