River and groundwater levels in parts of Connecticut are nearing record lows for late summer, officials said Thursday, as the eastern third of the state found itself in “extreme” drought conditions amid of a worsening drought.
The drought, which began spreading across New England in May, had already prompted local officials to ask voluntary water reductions while calling for caution against forest fires. Residents in at least two towns, East Lyme and Putnam, were ordered to limit water use for non-essential purposes such as watering lawns.
With rainfall in July continuing to fall well below normal levels, however, the drought has only worsened across the state. The last report on Thursday of the US Drought Monitor showed that more than three-quarters of the state was in “severe” drought, while conditions had moved to extremes in the easternmost parts of New London and Windham counties.
“We were anticipating good rain activity, which unfortunately didn’t happen,” said Martin Heft, head of the state’s Interagency Drought Task Force.
The impacts of the drought are beginning to be felt more acutely, especially in eastern Connecticut, experts and state officials told the drought task force Thursday.
John Mullaney, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey, said average water flows along parts of the Yantic and Salmon rivers were approaching record levels. On the Farmington River, state officials said water temperatures below Collinsville Dam were getting so hot that fish were beginning to seek refuge in colder tributaries, prompting them to temporarily ban the fishing in the places where the fish have congregated.
Meanwhile, the dry conditions brought the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection expand the area with “extreme” risk of forest fires. In Massachusetts, the National Guard was activated Thursday to fight a wildfire that it has been burning for over a monthaccording to the news.
“We’re getting continuous reports of fires starting that, thankfully, haven’t grown to a significant size,” said Helene Hochholzer, DEEP forest protection supervisor.
After Thursday’s meeting, the drought task force voted to recommend that Gov. Ned Lamont step up public response in areas hardest hit by the drought, while continue to recommend precautions to the rest of the state.
Lamont quickly accepted the group’s recommendations, moving New London and Windham counties into Stage 3 of the state’s five-stage Drought Response Plan.
“Connecticut continues to experience the impacts of climate change with this exceptionally dry summer,” Lamont said. “There are steps that residents and businesses can take to help reduce the impacts of this drought, including voluntarily reducing water use to only those things that are absolutely necessary and limiting the amount of water that is use”.
Under stage 3 conditions, residents in affected areas are asked to report dry wells to local authorities, avoid burning near forests and reduce water consumption by taking measures such as taking shorter showers, avoiding water the lawn and do not use public water to fill swimming pools. While these steps remain voluntary, local officials are supposed to adopt new messages to “convey the more serious nature of the conditions.” The last Stage 3 drought declaration in Connecticut was in October 2020, according to the governor’s office.
Outside of Windham and Tolland counties, the rest of the state remains in Stage 2 conditions that call for less urgent voluntary water reductions.
Despite worsening conditions, officials said Thursday there was no immediate risk of widespread water shortages in Connecticut. According to the Department of Public Health, reservoir levels statewide remained at 82 percent of the average for this time or year, although levels continue to drop.
Steve Harkey, an official with DPH’s Drinking Water Section, said many public water systems across the state were urging customers to voluntarily reduce consumption. The agency has also received a report of a dry private well in Franklin, though it said that case may have been due to overuse.
Water utilities are being asked to report service calls so the agency can better track areas where wells are running dry, he added.
As for any potential relief from the drought, weather experts said scattered showers across southern New England on Wednesday barely made a dent in the rain deficit.
Gary Lessor, the chief meteorologist at the Connecticut Weather Center, said New England’s dry weather has shown no signs of abating heading into the fall.
“The best we can hope for right now, but what nobody wants, is a major tropical system that dumps large amounts of rain,” Lessor said, before adding that the Atlantic Ocean has remained unusually calm despite predictions of an active hurricane season.
“We haven’t seen anything,” he said.