What To Expect As Maine's Drought Continues

Sep 28, 2020

2020 has been a very dry year. You might have noticed that your garden needs watering more than usual this summer — we've even been hearing of people watering their grass. And that's not something you see a lot of in Maine.

2020 has been a very dry year.
Credit U.S. Geological Survey

Now with autumn underway, the drought is continuing. Ryan Gordon, a hydrogeologist with Maine Geological Survey told Maine Public’s Jennifer Mitchell a little bit more about what's going on.

Ed note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell: We've watched the colors gradually changing on the U.S. Drought Monitor map all summer, pretty much from the moment the snows departed. What's going on right now in the state?

Gordon: Yeah, we've been focused very much on the drought that's been happening here in Maine since about May. All of Maine right now is in some sort of a drought. Drought is obviously a lack of rain, of precipitation, but it also means that soils are drying out, which can impact farmers and agriculture and also people's yards, as you mentioned. And we can also talk about river flow. So the surface water streams and rivers will get lower, as drought gets worse, and you also get groundwater levels falling.

And one of the things I've certainly noticed is rocky river bottoms appearing, some creeks actually drying up. How are rivers being affected this summer by this drought?

Yes, absolutely. Many of our streams are at historic lows right now. And in Maine, we actually have a fairly decent long record in a lot of sites, going back 100 years or more in some places. We are seeing in all of our large rivers right now — Androscoggin, the Kennebec, the Penobscot, the Aroostook and the St. John —we're at record low values for this time of the year. So these are flows in late September that we've never seen before, in our history of measuring these things. There're a lot of streams that are very low, and people have noticed, and they are calling us saying, ‘I can walk across the Aroostook River.’ Yeah, so it's something that people definitely notice.

What are some of the effects of having historically low water levels in so many of these river systems?

Well, first of all, there's the direct impact on people. So a lot of irrigators use surface water to water their crops, especially when the late summer is dry. And they can't do that when the streams are at their extreme lowest values. And also, it does impact the ecosystems in the streams themselves. So when you have very small amounts of water, when you just have puddles trickling through the stream bed, the water gets much hotter. And that can be really bad for fish populations, and you can actually have fish kills.

Now what about issues of water quality? Some public water departments do actually utilize surface water.

Most people in Maine get their drinking water from ground water, but there are some large water systems that use surface water, and the biggest one is the Portland Water District, their water source is Sebago Lake, and Sebago lake has very good water quality. So it's not something that I would worry about right now. But in general, yes, as temperatures go up in surface water bodies, it's more likely to get things like algae growing, which can affect the water quality.

So that's surface water. What about groundwater?

Groundwater is usually slower to respond to a drought than the surface water. But if it goes on all summer, like it has, you can definitely see the effects. So many of the wells that we monitor are, we've seen a few, a few extra low records, lower than we've ever seen before, but most of the values are in the last in the bottom 10% of values that we see.

And wells like private drinking water wells that people have?

It is a risk. So about half of the population of Maine gets their water from a private well that's on their own property. And those wells are more susceptible to drying up then public water supplies. The shallow are usually older wells are the most susceptible to drying up. And so those are basically what we've seen drying up.

Looking over the last 20 or so years, it's not a complete fluke. Is there anything to be gleaned, I suppose going forward?

So one of the causes of this particular drought was just that we had a very hot and dry summer. And we're seeing, you know, a lot of heat records being broken as well as a lack of precipitation. So if we keep seeing these very hot, dry summers, then the short term summer droughts might be something that we have to get used to.

Originally published at 8:44 p.m. Sept. 27, 2020.