The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Northeast is in the middle of an intense drought

Rivers have been reduced to a trickle in the most severely affected areas, and farmers are facing consequences of a summer without rain

A sign announces a water ban in Scituate, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Persistently dry conditions in the Northeast have plunged the United States’ most populous region into the middle of an intense drought — and it’s not yet clear whether any relief is on the horizon.

A coastal storm is likely to track off the Northeast coast later this week, but models have wavered regarding how much rainfall will strike the region, to the chagrin of farmers and forest managers alike.

Photos of the drought in the Northeast look as if they’ve been taken in the Desert Southwest. Major rivers in the region have dropped to their lowest levels in local memory, with certain tributaries of the Boston area’s Charles River drying up entirely as locals find themselves able to walk across normally swift-moving rivers.

Southwest drought is the most extreme in 1,200 years, study finds

“We are walking on the river. We could walk across it with the right boots,” Boston-area photographer Fran Gardino told CBS News. “If you come here normally the river is flowing rapidly down here. It’s so strong you couldn’t stand in here.”

Extreme drought is plaguing much of eastern Massachusetts, including Boston, as well as parts of southern and eastern Rhode Island. Under the Federal U.S. Drought Monitor’s drought classification system, there’s just one level worse.

Not a single part of Massachusetts or Rhode Island is free of drought. Extreme drought, which the Drought Monitor warns can cause an extreme reduction of flow in rivers as well as widespread crop loss, has overtaken 24.5 percent of Massachusetts and 33.63 percent of Rhode Island.

Last month was Boston fourth-driest July on record, yielding just 0.62 inches of rain recorded compared with its average July rainfall total of 3.27 inches.

In Providence, R.I., just 0.46 inches of rain were tallied in July, well below the normal of 2.91 inches. On Aug. 9, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee (D) issued a statewide drought advisory recommending that local residents prepare for an extended period of dry weather.

“As a precaution, I encourage residents and businesses to consider taking water conservation measures,” McKee said in a news release.

Numerous municipalities in Massachusetts have instituted mandatory water restrictions, limiting the number of days each week on which watering is allowed.

The drought is not localized to Massachusetts and Rhode Island — it’s regionwide. Parts of New Jersey, New York City and areas all the way up through coastal Maine are experiencing at least moderate drought. Drought conditions also extend farther into the interior Northeast, into all of New Hampshire, nearly all of Vermont and as far west as areas along Lake Ontario in New York.

Some rainfall is expected in the region on Thursday and Friday, though exactly how much is rather unclear, with the two most reliable weather models providing diverging guidance.

The last few runs of the American (GFS) model have trended back toward a rainier solution, with up to 2.5 inches of rain forecast across rain-needy parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It also has some much-needed precipitation reaching as far inland as New Hampshire and Vermont.

The European model remains less generous, however, restricting the significant rainfall much closer to the coast and generally north of Massachusetts.

Any rain that falls in the region would certainly be welcome, even if the GFS trends toward a drier, European-like solution. If a wetter, GFS-like solution occurs, it will not be enough to allow most of the region to escape from drought.

“I think we’re probably going to be in this for a while, and it’s going to take a lot,” Ted Diers, an assistant director of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services water division, told the Associated Press. “What we really are hoping for is a wet fall followed by a very snowy winter to really recharge the aquifers and the groundwater.”

Vermont farmer Brian Kemp told the AP that drought conditions have made it harder for his large herd of cattle to find enough grazing.

“Farming is challenging,” Kemp said, “and it’s becoming even more challenging as climate change takes place.”

Dairy farms in Vermont are a $2 billion per year industry, and drought in the region has meant this year’s yield and quality of hay are both low, making life difficult for farmers who need hay to feed their livestock.

Rhode Island farmer Milan Adams told the AP that many of his fields are covered in a layer of dry powdery soil, which makes for tough hay farming.

“The height of the hay was there, but there was no volume to it. From there, we got a little bit of rain in the beginning of May that kind of shot it up,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything since.”