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'Next Two Weeks Will Be Critical For The Region' As Drought Worsens Across The Northeast

A map of the Northeast with yellow, orange and dark orange colors
U.S. Drought Monitor
Drought conditions, charted in this animation from late May through the end of June 2021, show areas that are abnormally dry (yellow), those experiencing moderate drought (orange), and a developing pocket of severe drought (dark orange).

Recent and sporadic rainfall over the last week has done little to resolve dry and, in some areas, outright drought conditions in the Northeast. Now portions of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are contending with months of moderate to severe drought, according to the latest U.S Drought Monitor data.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, a professor at the University of Vermont’s department of geography and Vermont’s state climatologist, to discuss the region’s drought conditions and what the weeks ahead could hold. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Give us sort of a thumbnail sketch now on drought conditions as we head into the month of July.

Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux : The drought that we're in right now is a drought that actually started last year, 2020, and it's continued over the course of the entire year, and sort of intensified in two ways this year.

We had a little bit of “flash drought” conditions back in April, when the temperatures were really high, if you remember, and that sort of just accelerated the amount of evaporation that was taking place. And now what we're seeing are all of those cumulative effects of not having a lot of rain falling, temperatures being high in times of the year when it usually isn't that high, our groundwater has not been replenished, hasn't replenished I would say for at least the last 12 months. And so now you're seeing all of these factors sort of coming together, and in a particularly acute way in the northern parts of New Hampshire, northern parts of Maine, but also in the Northeast Kingdom regions in Vermont here as well.

What are some of the biggest risks that come from those conditions you just described?

I think the biggest risks are to our aquifers, to our groundwater supplies, because those take a while to recharge. And because they have not been recharged for the last year, I think what we're going to be seeing now are the ongoing deficits, especially if you are on a well — like a personal or private well — you’re probably already starting to see a lot of those conditions.

So it’s critically important to stay tuned into that, but also to report a lot of those impacts, so we get a clear idea across the state, where those pockets of severity are. We are actually hitting record low values in our stream flows and in our groundwater wells. So, we're hitting daily record values. That's really, really, really concerning, and we've seen that since April.

Affected by drought? Report it to here.

There is now what they're calling severe drought in parts of central Maine [and spreading into New Hampshire.]. And somebody who's listening here in Vermont may wonder, “Well, you know, I feel sorry for people in Maine.” But is what happens in Maine a problem, or a red flag, for Vermonters? What should we know about this for our region?

If we think about it, storm systems move across an entire band. And so if they missed a part of our region, they probably missed a part of our neighbors to the east and north of us. And so the extent that we're seeing of the drought in Maine should be a harbinger of for us to actually sit up and pay attention.

We can actually pinpoint how much rain we need to come out of our current drought. So, in the northeastern part of the state, we actually are down by 10.72 inches. So, we need at least that much to come out of the dry conditions that we're seeing in the northeast part of the state. And in the Champlain Valley, we're down by 9.59 inches. Those are huge numbers. And those are numbers that are going to take not just one or two or three storms, but an extended period of replenishment for those aquifers to come back.

You just met with the National Integrated Drought Information System, taking a look at drought conditions in the Northeast. How would you describe the concern level from that meeting? What was discussed? Any mid- to long-term forecasts you can share with us?

Absolutely. So I met with Sylvia Reeves, who is the Northeast Drought Early Warning Systems Coordinator. And one of the things that struck me is a comment that she made: She said the next two weeks will be critical for the region as a whole.

They're starting to see a lot of dry wells coming in, and they're moving to having every two weeks, an update coming out. And if things continue to deteriorate, they're going to be putting out weekly updates.

So, it's important for all Vermonters, all Northeasterners, to actually be on the ball with looking to see how conditions in their soil moisture, in their lakes and ponds... in their personal wells, are dropping, and report those impacts. Because Sylvia is really interested in making sure that she captures this really well, so that when we start making reports, we have agencies like the Farm Service Agency that depend on our getting this right.

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These are serious problems, and I don't want to make light of this, but I am reminded of that old joke, you know, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” I know we’re really talking more about climate overall here, and conditions, but the question does leap to my mind: What can be done about any of this? You're identifying the problems, but what can actually be done to help?

If we look to our neighbors in New Hampshire and Maine, they have already activated their drought task force, and one of the things that they're doing is public awareness campaigns with a lot of conservation efforts, water conservation primarily. Because if it's not falling from the sky, it's not precipitating, you need to conserve what's actually in the system right now.

So I think water conservation is going to be critically important, not just for the next couple of weeks, but thinking long term, until our aquifers are recharged.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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