Energy & Environment

13-month drought, with no end in sight, prompts task force to reassemble

Stunted ears of corn, a result of Vermont's drought, came from the Mad River Valley late last summer. File photo by Cate Chant/VTDigger

More than half of Vermont is in a state of drought, with dry conditions that date back at least to June 2020.

The persistence of the dry conditions has prompted reactivation of the Vermont drought task force, which held its first meeting Thursday to discuss ways to deal with a drought that has persisted for more than a year.

Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, state climatologist and co-chair of the task force, requested the reactivation last week. The group — which includes local, regional and national experts — focused mostly on information-sharing on Thursday and getting up to speed on conditions and impacts throughout the state.

The task force is taking a broad approach to ensure it is not overlooking impacts in a particular area, Dupigny-Giroux said.

The drought began about 13 months ago, Dupigny-Giroux said, and “because it's persisted for that period of time, we're seeing the progression of the various ways that we can see drought impacts.”

Meteorological signs such as declines in rainfall are apparent at the start of droughts, she said, and as they persist for weeks or months, impacts on vegetation and dryness in the upper levels of the soil will crop up.

And when droughts stretch from months into years, “then you start seeing the hydrologic impacts,” Dupigny-Giroux said — the water table drops, shallow wells can run dry, and the forest fire danger escalates.

Where is the drought?

Just over 57% of Vermont is experiencing moderate drought conditions, and most of the state is abnormally dry, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System monitor. Few parts of the country are registering drought conditions in the “exceptional” and “extreme” categories on the monitor, and none of them are in the Northeast.

Erica Bornemann, director of Vermont Emergency Management, is the other chair of the drought task force. She said there are a range of actions the state could take if the drought in Vermont became more severe, but things are not at that point.

“We're not, you know, anywhere near a situation where we would expect to see significant impacts at the local level,” she said.

While the drought is largely hitting northern Vermont right now, it was more prevalent in the southern part of the state last year, according to Robert Haynes, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Burlington.

Part of the reversal relates to where storms end up tracking, Haynes said. Southern Vermont had a significant mid-December snowstorm last winter, he said, while the northern part of the state did not. Snowfall totals can have a significant impact on drought.

“If we lack a good seasonal snowpack from before, if we don’t have enough contribution from snowmelt, that lack of snow in winter can kind of translate into summer as well, where a dry summer can compound with a dry winter to allow for those drought conditions,” he said.

Hydrologic impacts

Vermont is seeing severe hydrological drought, according to Dupigny-Giroux. The impact includes low water levels in lakes, streams and other bodies of water — affecting recreation, fishing and even the prevalence of blue-green algae.

Scientists have seen hydrologic impacts throughout the winter and into this summer.

“It's getting to the point where we need to sort of raise the level of awareness around that, around what are sort of things that could be coming down the pike, and some of the human health aspects that could be coming,” she said.

It has also meant a drop in the levels of underground water, the source of much of Vermont’s drinking water. 

Staff at the national and state geological surveys say one result can be a higher concentration of metals in the water, Dupigny-Giroux said. The task force discussed five types of chemicals and metals — uranium, iron, sulfur, arsenic and manganese — that can become a concern during an extended drought, she said.

The task force will discuss the topic in more depth at a later meeting, Dupigny-Giroux said, but is already paying close attention to it. The task force also hopes to raise public awareness about what might happen to the water.

“Some folks know that their well tends to have whatever concentration of uranium or arsenic,” she said. “It’s by way of public awareness of information that we learn more, that we get more and more samples.”

Shortfalls and record lows

Task force members are seeing record-low values for wells, streamflow and groundwater flow, Dupigny-Giroux said. And given that the U.S. Geological survey has monitored the conditions in some of these areas for decades, “seeing record low values is of concern,” she said.

“I think that's one of the things that was sort of like the impetus to get back together — to actually quantify that, to create that coordinated messaging and to get the proactive strategies in place,” she said.

Lake Champlain’s water levels are below normal for this time of year, Dupigny-Giroux said. A National Weather Service graph of the lake level over the past 60 days showed a level of 94.74 feet Thursday. Another National Weather Service graph showed an average level of nearly 96 feet in mid-July.

Rainfall has also been scant, Dupigny-Giroux said. The northeastern part of Vermont is facing a shortfall of 9.5 inches and the western portion is 7.61 inches short, she said Thursday. But last week, the northeastern part of the state was in a shortfall of 9.25 inches, and the western part 8.05 inches, she said.

Improvements in some areas of the state but not others demonstrate part of the reason it’s so hard to determine what it will take — in terms of precipitation and time — for Vermont to get out of drought conditions, Dupigny-Giroux said.

Another factor is that, in the middle of the summer, rainfall is in high demand — for vegetation, and for residential, industrial or commercial purposes. And, with ultra-dry soil, a lot of rain is absorbed as soon as it hits the ground.

As a result, “it’ll take longer for that groundwater and subsurface moisture to recharge itself,” she said. “It’s not as if all that water is going to make its way down through to recharge the aquifers.”

Haynes said winter could ease the drought — or not. “If we have another dry winter, then we’ll probably not see much improvement,” he said.

How long might the drought last? Dupigny-Giroux can’t say.

“It took us a while to get into the particularly severe hydrologic drought that we’re in right now,” she said. “It’ll take us a while to get back out.”

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