Rain, rain come again: Local farms feel drought impact
New London ― All the rain clouds seemingly have been sent out to pasture this summer, while it’s the pastures that need rain the most.
In 91 years of tracking rainfall data, the New London area has seen 3.37 inches of rain on average in July. Currently, halfway through the month, the area has gotten only 1.29 inches.
In a news release Thursday morning, Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management announced that all of the state’s eight counties have entered a Stage 2 drought, or an “emerging drought event.”
The “Incipient Drought,” as described by the state’s drought plan adopted in 2018, may impact water supplies, agriculture or natural ecosystems.
New London County farmers already are experiencing an impact.
“Our vegetable crops are OK because we have good irrigation,” said Baylee Drown of Long Table Farm in Lyme. “Although the river we take some of our irrigation from is super low right now.”
Drown, the operating manager and co-owner of the farm with her husband, Ryan Quinn, said the practice of regenerative agriculture ― a combination of low tillage and plenty of mulch to cover the soil ― has kept her crops hydrated and full of nutrients despite the drought.
“Because we use organic practices, there’s a lot of water holding capacity in the soil,” Drown said.
Drown’s greater concern lies with her dairy cattle.
On Thursday, she was in the process of putting up an expanded cattle fence to give the animals more room to graze and allow the vegetation more time to grow back, a much slower process during a drought.
There’s also long-term worries, as it is tough to grow hay in current conditions.
“Is there enough hay to feed cattle this winter?“ said Drown, who has had trouble purchasing hay.
Water usage advisory
The drought announcement came after Gov. Ned Lamont approved a recommendation by the state’s Interagency Drought Workgroup for the state to enter the second of five drought stages. New London and Windham counties had been classified as Stage 1 as of June 2, when there were early signs of abnormally dry conditions.
“Residents should be mindful of their water consumption and take sensible steps to reduce impacts on other water uses and on the environment,” Lamont said in a news release Thursday. “We must begin early steps now to mitigate the potential for harm should the drought become prolonged.”
“The combination of precipitation shortfalls and an extended period above normal temperatures have impacted the state’s water resources and increased demands upon them,” Office of Policy & Management Undersecretary Martin Heft, who also chairs the Interagency Drought Workgroup, said in the news release from Lamont. He assured residents not to panic.
The state asks all residents to voluntarily reduce their water use. Recommendations include reducing automatic outdoor irrigation systems and delay planting new vegetation, as well as fixing any plumbing leaks.
The state Department of Public Health’s website lists 11 other water-saving tips, which include not running water while washing your hands or dishes and brushing your teeth, as well as not filling your bathtub as much as normal and using shorter cycles on dishwashers and washing machines.
But not everyone can afford further water cutbacks.
“We’re going to have to move forward with what we’re doing,“ said Karen Scott, who owns Scott’s Yankee Farmer of East Lyme with her husband, Tom, and their son Colin. ”I don’t think we can conserve any more without doing harm to our business.”
Though the lack of rain has kept crops like strawberries, blueberries and tomatoes full of flavor and not overly hydrated, it has been a challenge to keep the farm hydrated at all.
“We are holding up only because many years ago we invested in an irrigation system,” Scott said.
It’s not an easy system to operate. Strawberries are watered directly, while corn is sprinkled from above. The intricate system of pipes must be moved from one part of the field to another to ensure all plants are watered properly.
However, weather conditions are not impacting the business’s overall inventory. “Even though it’s dry, we have lots of produce coming into the store every day,” Scott said.
FRESH New London has not lost any crops as of Thursday, Executive Director Alicia McAvay said, even if its rainwater collection buckets are empty.
The nonprofit, which prioritizes empowering youth and connecting communities through growing food, is putting in the extra effort to care for its crops in an urban garden, a community garden and various “snack beds” that anyone in the city can harvest. The urban garden’s yield is harvested, boxed up and distributed to 30 families in need.
McAvay said the nonprofit’s 20 hired young people, along with interns and a team of permanent staff, have watered crops early in the morning to avoid evaporation and put down straw mulch to help retain water.
The state Interagency Drought Workgroup’s decision to enter Stage 2 was due to an assessment of precipitation, surface waters, groundwater, reservoirs, soil moisture, vegetation and fire danger conditions ― all of which are referred to as “indicator data” and are monitored by both state and federal agencies.
This is the first time the state has reached Stage 2 since 2020 and the fifth time since 2002. Any further deterioration in the indicator data would push the state into Stage 3, a level last reached by four counties in 2020.
New London and Windham counties were included in that 2020 grouping. The conditions reached the point where local wells were drying up, Heft said Tuesday, whereas other parts of the state were not seeing similar repercussions.
Heft said every town has a municipal drought liaison and an emergency management director, who are responsible for monitoring the situation and reporting back findings both good and bad.
The next meeting for the group is scheduled for Aug. 4, Heft added, but a special meeting would be scheduled if deemed necessary.
Water levels OK for now
Currently, conditions in the area are alright. Chris Riley, spokesman for Norwich Public Utilities, said public reservoirs are in “pretty good shape” after a wet spring. Though NPU customers have not been advised to implement water conservation measures, hydrant flushing has been suspended.
“There is a long way to go this summer, and we’re watching the levels at our reservoirs closely every day,” Riley said in an email. “In the event we need to take any other steps, we will reach out to our customers with information on how they can help through the media, social media, and our website.”
Aquarion Water Company, which provides water services to Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, “urges continued conservation” in a news release Friday morning. Currently customers in 13 Connecticut towns ― including Groton, Mystic and Stonington in New London County ― are advised to use irrigation sprinklers only twice a week.
The company also asks customers outside of the designated towns to follow the schedule in an extra effort to conserve water.
“Our reservoir levels are currently sufficient, and we’re hopeful that rain amounts will soon return to normal,” Aquarion President Donald Morrissey said in the news release. “With our customers’ support, we are better able to mitigate the impacts of the current drought conditions.”
Rick Stevens, manager of Groton Utilities Water Division, said his company is “in a good position to provide to the whole region” if needed.
Groton Utilities use a five-reservoir system with a current water level of 94% capacity, which Stevens said is “pretty much on average” for this time of year.
He said the system can withstand drawing 12.6 million gallons in a given day, but current demand is about 6 million gallons. He added that the current supply can last up to 300 days.
“We’re fortunate that people who came before were engineers and planners,” Stevens said of previous director of utilities, Bill Clinton. Clinton oversaw the creation of the Morgan Reservoir in Ledyard, which can hold 1.5 billion gallons of water and is currently at capacity.
While Groton Utilities will continue to provide service for its usual ares, like Groton Long Point and Noank, Stevens said GU has the capacity to provide water to New London, Montville and Waterford, and can even access a pipeline that runs under the Thames River. GU can even extract groundwater, if needed.
“Our system is very resilient,” Stevens said.
Drought Coordinator Ron Bata is one of the people responsible for tracking water levels and reporting findings to DPH. Stevens said water flow and capacity is measured daily and reported to the state. No regulated action is required, however, until water levels reach 60%.
Stevens said GU is always advocating for water conservation; a list of recommended actions can be found on the GU’s website, grotonutilities.com.