Editorial: The long dry summer of 2016

  • In this photo taken Wednesday July 20, 2016, Otter Brook is seen almost dry in Keene, N.H. Parts of the Northeast are in the grips of a drought that has led to water restrictions, wrought havoc on gardens and raised concerns among farmers. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • In this photo taken Thursday, July 21, 2016, farmer John Lavoie walks through drying strawberry patch in Hollis, N.H. Parts of the Northeast are in the grips of a drought that has led to water restrictions, wrought havoc on gardens and raised concerns among farmers. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • In this July 16, 2016, photo, a sign in the midst of parched, brown grass in front of a fire station explains water restrictions in Sudbury, Mass. Much of the Northeast is in the grips of a drought that has led to water restrictions, wrought havoc on gardens and raised concerns among farmers. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

Published: 7/30/2016 2:31:54 PM

When the forecast calls for late-day thunderstorms this summer, more and more people are looking skyward. For once, they’re actually hoping these unpredictable storms will hit — and linger.

But even the short, raucous downpours thunderstorms can deliver won’t be enough to break the severe drought in parts of Hampshire County and in a band that reaches across central Massachusetts.

Weather experts say only a long-lasting rain will bring a meaningful change to our parched landscape.

Across the Northeast, an estimated 33 million people are living amid drought. Thousands in the Valley are coping with water restrictions that seek to preserve precious municipal water supplies. Farmers are struggling to get water to crops and fire crews remain on alert for brush fires.

We all have a role to play in getting through New England’s dry summer.

Along with honoring requests to restrict non-essential use of water, residents of the Valley must take care not to accidentally ignite outdoor fires. Once started, these blazes are awfully hard to put out because there is so much dry fuel to burn.

Last weekend, a lightning strike was the likely cause of a fire that burned about two acres in Pelham and required a major response from local fire departments. After fighting the fire Saturday afternoon, crews returned Sunday and worked a long day to extinguish hot spots.  

The most recent survey by the United States Drought Monitor found that rain in the Northeast remained below normal in the past week, joining east Texas, northern Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the stinginess of precipitation. In the last 30 days in the Northeast, precipitation has been more than 25 percent below normal and areas of moderate to severe drought are expanding.

On the drought monitor’s computerized maps, Hampshire County looks like an autumnal banner that waves orange and brown and is driest on its eastern flank.

The same dry weather is beating up New York to the west, with reports of corn curling and perishing in fields, according to the drought monitor, a government service run out Lincoln, Nebraska.

New York has issued its first statewide drought watch since 2002. The grass sure isn’t any greener on this side of the border: Massachusetts has also issued a drought watch — not that you can avoid seeing its effects. In all, 120 cities and towns have adopted mandatory water-restriction measures.  

Meantime, temperatures in New England have been 6 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, baking the ground — and an array of crops. When a drought is this well established, small amounts of rain are wicked up and do not make a significant difference.

At Red Fire Farm in Granby, images of approaching storms on phones and laptops raise hopes of a soaking to come — but those have been routinely dashed.

Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm told the Gazette that she and her colleagues are avid weather-watchers — and consumers of weather data, eagerly scanning the National Weather Service’s electronic maps. “We just stare at the radar and watch those little green blobs missing us,” she said.

Weather this dry leaves smaller farms, particularly those without elaborate irrigation systems, unable to properly start crops and keep them alive. Some bigger growers in New England have taken to watering around the clock, the drought monitor reports.

In our complex and interconnected environment, a prolonged drought can seem to double down. Because precipitation has been so sketchy, the fungus that normally helps keep the gypsy moth caterpillar population in check didn’t do that. As a result, caterpillars have been defoliating trees across the Northeast, causing them to dry out and heightening the fire risk.    

The Valley is truly a tinder box this summer and everyone needs to be careful.

That means closely monitoring outdoor barbecues, respecting fire rules and helping preserve public water supplies.

That’s become a way of life in California over the last few years. And it’s the reality here in the summer of 2016.


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