photo courtesy of william hosley

Several weeks of dry weather in Connecticut have led the Interagency Drought Workgroup – which is tasked with monitoring the state’s water supplies – to recommend raising drought stage designations throughout most of the state.

Prior to this week, Fairfield, Middlesex and New Haven counties were at “below normal conditions” – Stage One drought, according to criteria in the state’s Drought Preparedness and Response Plan. The remaining five counties were in Stage Two, “incipient drought,” with residents encouraged to reduce outdoor irrigation and other non-essential outdoor watering, postpone planting new lawns or vegetation, and minimize overall water use.

Following its Thursday meeting, the Interagency Drought Workgroup is recommending the governor’s office move Hartford, Tolland, Windham, and New London counties to a Stage Three designation, which is “Moderate Drought.” It advised that Middlesex and Litchfield counties should be classified as Stage Two.

“Hopefully we get some rain and we don’t have to go any higher [with the stages],” said Martin Heft, chair of the workgroup. “The cooler weather helps because any precipitation we do get will not be evaporated as quickly as it is during the hotter months.”

The workgroup is tasked with implementing the Connecticut Water Planning Council’s drought plan, which was adopted in 2018. It lays out five stages of drought and strategies to mitigate it when it occurs.

Most parts of Connecticut are operating with a rain deficit of over 10 inches. The situation has been most evident in the eastern portion of the state, where conditions have been deteriorating quickly after an extra hot and arid August and September.

Although most of the state did register some rain early Wednesday, the amount was not significant enough to change the persistent drought conditions.

“It’s great that we got some rain, but did it help? Not really,” said Heft, who explained that the workgroup uses nine criteria to decide which of the five stages of drought each county is currently experiencing. The criteria include: cumulative precipitation, groundwater levels, streamflow, drinking water reservoir levels, the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the crop moisture index, vegetation drought response index (only available during growing season), fire danger, and the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Wildfire fears were confirmed in mid-September when sparks set off a blaze in Natchaug State Park in Windham that consumed over 90 acres. Dry conditions, coupled with parched subsurface soil, made the conditions ripe to fuel a smoldering, below-ground fire that was difficult to contain and extinguish quickly and completely.

To combat current drought conditions statewide, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is urging residents to make safe choices, monitor daily forest fire danger reports, and plan outdoor burning accordingly.

“The dry windy days we have been having, have elevated fire concerns,” DEEP spokesman Will Healey said.

The drought has caused the DEEP to delay its annual fish restocking timeline, Healey added.

“Typically, we usually restock in early fall, but this year the water temperature was too high and the stream water levels were low, which has caused us to stagger our restock timeline,” Healey said. “Right now, we are just hoping for more rain. One day of rain is welcome, but it is going to take more than that to make up for months of drought conditions.”

Connecticut is no stranger to drought. According to the state Drought Preparedness Response Plan, the most severe drought occurred during a multi-year period from 1961-69, when much of the northeastern United States grappled with devastated agricultural crops, dry river beds, and depleted drinking water supplies.

Since then, expanding population and increasing water demands have made the state more vulnerable to the effects of drought. Following a historically significant drought from 1980-82, an independent drought task force was created to actively monitor conditions and issue recommendations. In 1999, the state recognized a need to develop a set of formal operating procedures and administrative guidance to improve drought response. Subsequently, the drought task force was re-established as the Interagency Drought Workgroup.

More recently, Heft said the state experienced similar drought conditions to today in 2016.

Residents are encouraged to conserve water whenever possible, set voluntary water use reduction goals of ten to 15% and cut back on unnecessary water use, such as washing cars, filling fish ponds, or watering lawns to ensure the safe water supply for residents, agriculture, natural ecosystems, wildlife and the environment.