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Thanks to the lack of rainfall so far this year, fishermen may have a better chance of catching some of the 376,000 trout stocked in the state's rivers, lakes and streams in preparation for opening day of fishing season Saturday.
Rainfall levels more than 6 inches below normal for the first 3½ months of the year have made water levels at some favorite fishing spots too low to receive fish, said Chris McDowell, fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Fish that would normally be released there were taken elsewhere.
"We're finding another area of the stream or a lake or pond to put them in," he said. "We're doubling up in some locations."
According to the National Weather Service, the first quarter of 2012 was the driest in 118 years of weather data, with just 5.13 inches of precipitation falling, about 45 percent below normal. The three-month period also ranks as the warmest on record.
Many of the lowest streams are in the western part of the state, but three in eastern Connecticut are too low to be stocked this year: Parmalee Brook in Durham; Laurel Brook in Middletown and Wyassup Lake in North Stonington, where water was drained for dam repairs. Portions of the Yantic River are also too low for stocking, McDowell said, so fish were released in other stretches with more water.
That means fish will be congregating in fewer areas, said Peter Aarrestad, director of inland fisheries at DEEP. In addition, unseasonably warm temperatures meant trout in state hatcheries grew faster than normal throughout the winter, reaching lengths of 12 to 15 inches. Typically, fish stocked in the spring are 9 to 12 inches, McDowell said.
"A lot of our fish are pretty darn big," he said.
Benefits to fishermen aside, the dry conditions are beginning to cause some concern around the state. On April 12, the state Department of Public Health's Drinking Water Section sent a letter to water companies asking them to monitor their reservoirs closely and notify them if levels reach drought stage triggers.
"We're watching this closely," said Chris LaRose, operations manager for Norwich Public Utilities. "We are concerned, because there was no snow melt" to recharge streams and groundwater stores that feed the utility's reservoirs.
As of last month, no reservoirs in the state had dropped dangerously low, the public health department said in its letter. But it warned that if dry conditions persist, emergency planning may need to begin. Ample precipitation that fell in 2011 and 2010 is still stored in the state's reservoirs, keeping levels near capacity, officials at New London, Groton and Norwich public water utilities said.
"Droughts don't hit like hurricanes. They come on gradually," said Bruce Wittchen, environmental analyst with the state Office of Policy and Management. He works with the state's Interagency Drought Work Group, which met for the first time this year about 10 days ago and is scheduled to meet again next week. Meetings of the panel, comprising representatives of the departments of public health, agriculture, public utilities, emergency services, DEEP and others, are convened only when warranted by weather conditions.
Wittchen said the state has met some, but not all, of the criteria for declaring a drought advisory: two months or more of precipitation more than 65 percent below normal; at least two months of low streamflows; and high fire danger due to dry conditions. Groundwater levels, while low, are not at levels of concern, he said. Still, residents with private wells should be aware of the potential. They could see a significant dip in groundwater levels as spring progresses.
"We may see a drop when we get to full leaf out, and there's high demand," Wittchen said. "People who typically have problems with low water in the summer could start seeing problems earlier. They should be cautious."
The National Weather Service's U.S. Drought Monitor lists drought conditions in most of Connecticut as "severe." The northwest corner of the state is listed as "moderate."
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors streamflows through a system of gauges around the state, the eastern half of the state is in a "severe hydrological drought," while the western half is in an "extreme" drought. Drought conditions stretch into much of the rest of New England as well as Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
Alan Dunham, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass., said the scant rainfall thus far in April, normally the wettest month, hasn't significantly raised the precipitation totals.
"Right now we're on pace for one of the top driest Aprils on record," he said.
Some relief could be just around the corner, however. Rain predicted for this weekend and into early next week is expected to bring an inch to an inch and a half, Dunham said.
"We really need it to rain," he said.
Jan. 1-April 15, 2012: 6.13 inches
Normal for period: 11.76 inches
April 1-15, 2012: 0.18 inches
Normal for period: 2.02 inches.
Source: National Weather Service, based on data collected at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks.