Coastal Maine enters severe drought conditions as dry weather continues

·4 min read

Aug. 5—Half of Maine's 16 counties are now experiencing severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor's latest weekly report, with coastal counties being hit hardest.

Parts or all of York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, Sagadahoc, Kennebec, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties are designated in severe drought, according to the report, which was released Thursday. Those counties had been classified as moderate drought areas in the Monitor's report from July 26.

Meanwhile, almost one-third of the state remains in moderate drought, and wells across the state are beginning to run dry.

Portland's precipitation thus far this year totals only 19.78 inches, almost 7.5 inches below the 30-year average of 27.2 inches, according to meteorologist Nikki Becker with the National Weather Service in Gray.

Just 1.28 inches fell on Portland in July, compared with the 3.4-inch, 30-year average for the month. Rainfall also fell short of monthly averages by about the same amount in June and May.

"This week's heat and humidity is a true reminder of why over 76 percent of the state's population is in abnormally dry or drought-stricken areas," said Maine Emergency Management Agency Director Peter Rogers.

Inland, drought conditions range from abnormally dry to moderate in every Maine county except Aroostook, which is not experiencing drought. Isolated showers are expected inland this weekend.

"Any amount of rainfall is good, but the amount of rain we expect would not stop the drought," Becker said. Isolated showers or storms, even when heavy, tend to fall on hard dry ground and run off before the water can be effectively absorbed.

"While we do have some rain on the horizon next week, we do not anticipate it will be the prolonged, soaking rain needed to remedy these conditions," Rogers said.

Maine's Drought Task Force convened virtually Thursday in light of the new data bumping Maine's coast into the severe range. The task force noted that this is Maine's third consecutive year of drought.

Drought conditions have risen to severe elsewhere in New England, too, including Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts and coastal New Hampshire. Becker said unusually high temperatures lately have made conditions even drier. She said it's not possible yet to compare the drought's severity with past years because the current drought is still ongoing.

Weather officials have cited a smaller snowpack last winter as another contributing factor. Portland's 44.1 inches of snow last winter is just two-thirds of its 65.4-inch 30-year average. The last three winters have seen below-average snowpack in Maine, and earlier spring thaws have compounded the issue, according to officials.

According to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, hot and dry weather in the Northeast will likely cause drought conditions to persist through August.

"Severe drought" is in the middle of the National Weather Service's drought classification system, worse than "abnormally dry" and "moderate," better than "extreme drought" and the service's most dire designation, "exceptional drought." In severe drought conditions, the region can expect to see the size and yield of specialty crops shrink, outdoor burn warnings issued, trees turning brittle and susceptible to insect damage and air and water quality diminishing as groundwater levels decline.

Water wells that depend on rainfall, such as point or dug wells, "have been going dry left and right," according to Ben Levesque, a technician at A-Z Water Systems in Standish.

"I take most of the out-of-water calls for this company, and it's just been crazy. Even drilled wells have been going dry as of late," he said, noting that drilled wells aren't usually as affected by lack of rainfall.

A total of 18 wells have been reported dry this season in Maine, 16 of which are private, according to the Maine Emergency Management Agency. The agency asks well owners to report dry wells to its online survey.

State officials said some farmers may be feeling the heat this summer as well, based on their irrigation capacities.

"For farmers that have invested in irrigation and soil health, crops are looking good," said Tom Gordon, Public Service Coordinator at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry. "Drought has increased operating costs, particularly for labor and diesel fuel. For farmers who have not invested in irrigation, the outlook is for reduced quantity and quality of yields, and crop losses if the drought persists or intensifies."

Gordon added that hay supply will be limited for cattle farmers who rely on hay for feed over the fall and winter.

Prolonged dryness has also led to more wildfires. The Maine Forest Service reports there have been 533 total wildfires this year, burning more than 350 acres, on a pace to pass 2021's 651 total wildfires.

As short-term conditions are not expected to improve, Maine's Drought Task Force will convene again Sept. 8 to reassess the situation.