On July 8, 2016 Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Matthew Beaton announced a Declaration of Drought Watch for Central and Northeast Massachusetts and a Drought Advisory for Southeast Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley (the “Declaration”).

The Declaration follows four months of dry weather and was the result of a recommendation from the Drought Management Task Force, a group comprised of state, federal and local officials responsible for collecting and assessing technical data related to water supply, public safety and security. The Task Force will next review the affected regions in August. The Declaration will remain in effect until water levels return to normal and the Secretary issues another Declaration.

Affecting Southeast Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley, a Drought Advisory is the second of five levels of drought conditions outlined in Massachusetts Drought Management Plan. The lack of rainfall in the Connecticut River Valley, Central, and Northeast Regions since March resulted in cumulative precipitation deficits of four to five inches below normal for the months of April, May and June. For the months of May and June, precipitation was less than 61 percent of normal. Data from the Commonwealth’s groundwater, stream flow and reservoir monitoring network show very low levels for the beginning of July. Seventeen streams across the four regions impacted by drought have registered record-low flows for early July.

Affecting Central and Northeast Massachusetts, a Drought Watch is a more severe level of drought and represents extremely low groundwater and stream flow levels resulting from a precipitation deficit of nearly 10 inches during the past 12 months. State and federal officials will closely monitor these drought conditions and provide and technical outreach and assistance for the affected municipalities.

The Declaration means that applicants filing under the Wetlands Protection Act in the areas under the Declaration are subject to “Extended Drought” requirements under the wetlands regulations. Because Extended Drought conditions exist where an advisory or more severe level has been declared, observations of no flow in rivers in the affected areas made on or after the Declaration can not be used to prove a perennial river is an intermittent stream with no Riverfront Area.

Similarly, an inland pond would contain water year round except during extended drought. Applicants should also be aware that local bylaws may impose additional requirements under drought conditions.

A number of cities and towns in Massachusetts have already implemented water use restrictions pursuant to their water supply permits and generally have authority to penalize individual users for violations. Those communities affected by the Declaration that have not already done so can be expected to follow suit in the coming days. These restrictions typically apply to nonessential water use such as outdoor watering. Commercial and industrial facilities with water withdrawal permits are responsible for tracking drought declarations and modifying their water use accordingly.

The last time Massachusetts issued a Drought Advisory was 2014 and it lasted three months. This Declaration includes the first Drought Watch since 2002, a year during which drought declarations were in place for most of the year. How long this one will last depends on how seriously communities implement conservation measures and the weather, neither of which offers predictability. As a result, diligence during this time period will help businesses avoid permitting delays as well as violations that can result in costly enforcement actions.

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