Climate Crisis

Drought Creates Extreme Problems for Farmers and Fires

It was dry enough to prompt Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to declare a statewide drought advisory on Sept. 17. (istock)

“There are flood and drought over the eyes and in the mouth, dead water and dead sand contending for the upper hand. The parched eviscerate soil gapes at the vanity of toil, laughs without mirth. This is the death of the earth.” — T.S. Eliot

Drought has brought many a great civilization to its knees: ancient Egypt, the Great Plains of the United States, and post-World War II China, to name a few.

And this past summer, an epic drought came to Rhode Island. In fact, it’s still here. Providence normally gets around 10.53 inches of rain during June, July, and August, according to the National Weather Service. This summer, the city’s rainfall checked in at a mere 5.99 inches.

National Weather Service meteorologist Nicole Belk told members of the Rhode Island Drought Steering Committee during an Oct. 8 online meeting that the state just experienced it 11th-driest September on record, had its driest July to September on record, and its second-driest June to September.

It was dry enough to prompt Gov. Gina Raimondo to declare a statewide drought advisory on Sept. 17. As of Oct. 13, the U.S. Drought Monitor website — run through a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — had Rhode Island in the “extreme drought” category.

According to the website, 99.02 percent of the state is experiencing indicators of drought. This includes widespread crop loss, an increase in need for well drillers and bulk water haulers, extremely reduced flow to ceased flow of water, and wildlife disease outbreak. After the recent rainfall dropped by the remnants of Hurricane Delta, Rhode Island still needs about 10 inches of rain to relieve the drought.

This lack of rain means that there’s been an increase in wildfires across the state, with soil duff and dry tree detritus providing ample kindling. The average number of wildfires in Rhode Island hovers around 60 per year, according to Olney Knight, forest fire program coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), but this year, there’s been more than 100.

And with drought sucking any and all moisture out of the ground, they have been far from easy to put out.

“When we have drought conditions, you’ll have fires that, no matter how much water you dump on them, they’re gonna burn for weeks potentially and, depending on the size, maybe months.” Olney Knight, forest fire program coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

“We normally get a lot of fires … and they’re easy to put out because they don’t get dug into the ground, they don’t burn the big heavy stuff,” Knight said. “But when we have drought conditions, you’ll have fires that, no matter how much water you dump on them, they’re gonna burn for weeks potentially and, depending on the size, maybe months.”

A recent forest fire in Foster spanned 2 acres and took 70,000 gallons of water to contain. Another, in Smithfield, was described as a “bit of a bugger” by Knight.

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve had about 16 fires on around 8 to 10 acres,” he said. “A couple of these fires were becoming troublesome with the duff consumption … and two of those fires took about two to three days to achieve containment, just to make them stop moving.”

Meanwhile, in bordering Thompson, Conn., a wildfire has been smoldering and igniting like a grumbling volcano since August.

“Connecticut has one burning just over the line in Thompson that started in the beginning of August, and it made a run again this past weekend,” Knight said.

In addition to the drought causing the land to burn, it also poses some stress to various municipal water supplies. This summer, a few towns, including Narragansett and South Kingstown, had water bans in place to try to reduce water usage, though now the scale of the bans has been toned down.

While water usage has dropped off since summer tourists have departed, Julia Forgue, director of utilities for the city of Newport, is still concerned about the Newport Water System’s reservoir levels.

“Last month we were at 62 percent of total capacity,” she said. “Now we’re at approximately 54 percent. So we are in some of our lowest levels for this time of year. This week [week of Oct. 5] we are at 54 percent, and last week we were at 56 percent. We’re at some of our lowest levels in the last 10 years.”

The drought has also impacted local farmers, making it difficult to grow crops and feed livestock, and sometimes forcing them to buy feed from out of state.

“We’re looking to western Pennsylvania, western New York, into Canada, for hay supply and … if you find some, the cost of moving it to Rhode Island exceeds the cost of acquiring it, and some of those costs can’t be recovered,” said W. Michael Sullivan, state executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency. “It is, in at least almost 50 years of my experience in agriculture in Rhode Island, the most unsettling year I’ve ever seen.”

As indicated by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a symptom of drought’s high temperatures and little rain is widespread crop failure, and Sullivan noted that in Rhode Island, that means losses for a variety of local agricultural sectors.

“There are different sectors that have taken different impacts. Something like the commodity sod industry is terribly challenged with their fall seedings … so the crop that you expected to have mid-2021 may not be ready,” he said. “Christmas trees, you’re going to see some shorter internodes from those trees from this year; I suspect some of them will shed needles unless you take greater caution.”

Heidi Quinn, executive director of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, noted that Rhode Island farmers have been heavily impacted by the drought, and face risk of even more damage if conditions don’t improve.

She said the Farm Bureau has been working with DEM’s Division of Agriculture to help provide farmers with quick answers regarding issues such as dredging of existing farm ponds or digging new ones. The West Greenwich-based organization has also been attempting to create emergency loans or disaster assistance for farmers because of the loss of grazing lands and hay to feed livestock and costs associated with bringing in water for their animals.

“Water is a precious commodity, and even more so in a drought,” Quinn said. “If people use water responsibly during a drought, it will be there for the most important uses.”

While the state’s most recent drought hasn’t ended in societal collapse — and Rhode Island has had its fair share of droughts during the past two decades — it points toward a worrisome trend of extreme fluctuations in weather events.

A 2017 report by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program stated, “In the Narragansett Bay Watershed, projected increases in precipitation are one to three inches (2.5 to 7.6 centimeters) per decade, along with an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms. Additionally, precipitation events will cluster, meaning long periods of intense rain will be followed by intense periods of drought and drought-like conditions.”

“Probably what we’re going to see is more periods of extremes in general,” said Knight, DEM’s forest fire program coordinator. “Higher frequencies of low humidity, but then potentially more higher frequencies of flooding events.”

And while the weather in Rhode Island has cooled off and some rain has made its way to parched soils, it hasn’t been enough to fully mitigate the damage wrought by this year’s drought.

Sullivan noted that for farmers, this season is already too far gone.

“I wish things had gotten better, but with record drought from June, July, and August, you don’t make up for that with a little bit of late-season rain,” he said. “Like any good farmer, you’re going to sit back over the winter and say, ‘Damn, I hope next year’s better.’”

University of Rhode Island journalism students Olivia Ouellette and Kyle Spencer and ecoRI News contributor Roger Warburton contributed to this report.

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