Drought in the watershed

Drought in the watershed: What it means and what YOU can do to support local ecosystems

By Save The Bay Riverkeeper Kate McPherson

November 10, 2020 Update: Drought conditions are improving throughout Southern New England. In Massachusetts, many drought levels have fallen to a “Level 1” or “Level 2” status. In Rhode Island, water levels in wetlands are beginning to recover, but many of the smaller streams remain dry.

December 10, 2020 Update: Drought conditions continue to improve. In Massachusetts, drought levels have fallen to a “Level 1” status throughout the state. 

The Maidford River on Aquidneck Island is one of the many local waterbodies suffering under ongoing drought conditions.

Since July, many areas throughout the Narragansett Bay watershed have been facing lower than normal rainfall, leading to drought conditions. As of late October, drought conditions range from Level 1 in Rhode Island, to a critical Level 3 in southeastern Massachusetts. Keep reading to learn more about drought, how it affects local ecosystems, and what you can do to help.

Generally speaking, a “drought” is a prolonged period of dry weather that is caused by a lack of precipitation (rain or snow), and that results in a serious water shortage for some activity, population, or ecological system. 

You may notice the early stages of drought in your own yard, as lawn growth slows and lawn grasses turn brown, indicating that the plants have become dormant. Non-native or drought intolerant plants may droop or drop leaves. As droughts progress and the period of little-to-no rain continues, gardens and crops start to die without irrigation, and the amount of water in local streams is greatly reduced.  

Quick-step- for-residents-and-businesses-to-take-during-drought
During drought, residents and businesses alike can take simple steps to support the environment, like these, provided by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

The impacts of drought intensify when the lack of rainfall is paired with higher-than-average temperatures, which is precisely what we’ve seen in recent weeks. The water table drops and shallow wells may stop producing water. For us humans, the lack of rainfall can lead to a diminished drinking water supply, both in quantity and quality. The reduction in water supply quantity can negatively affect its usefulness for firefighting, which is particularly concerning as drought puts homes and infrastructure—especially those located near forests—at increased fire risk. 

Native trees go dormant earlier in the season than usual during drought, causing tree leaves to drop or crisp up. Stress from drought leads to a decline in the health of trees and shrubs. Forests can further be at increased risk from insect damage when natural predators are affected by drought. The dried state of both forests and grassland habitats makes them more vulnerable to fire. 

Stressed vegetation can make these ecosystems more susceptible to storm damage, particularly to uprooting which, along riverbanks, can result in increased erosion and reduced bank stability. Meanwhile, streams, rivers, groundwater and surface water start to dry up, eliminating the aquatic habitat that many species—including invertebrates, fish, and mammals like mink, otter and beaver—depend on. 

During drought conditions, we can all take steps to support our local ecosystems. In addition to the tips shared by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in the above graphic, here are some of my personal tips for reducing water use, and therefore supporting the Narragansett Bay watershed, during drought:

Bay-friendly lawns can still be green and lush!
  • While waiting for the water in your sink or shower to warm up, use a bucket to catch the cold water before it flows down the drain. Then, use this water to water plants, or even flush toilets. 
  • If you have a traditional-flush toilet, add a small container to the reservoir so that each flush uses less water. 
  • Only run full dishwasher or clothing loads
  • Pledge to not water your lawn. Even if some of your grasses die off, new drought-resistant plants will colonize over time. Photo at left illustrates how healthy an unwatered and unfertilized Bay-friendly lawn can look in October!

Interested in learning more Bay-friendly tips? Download our Bay-friendly Living Guide!