A view of Pearce Brook in Houlton, with water level significantly reduced as an effect of the drought afflicting Aroostook County. Credit: Alexander MacDougall | BDN

HOULTON, Maine — Sections of Aroostook County are experiencing an extreme drought in what’s become one of the driest summers on record.

The severe drought status — D2 — is characterized by low moisture in the soil and lack of widespread rainfall, drying vegetation and low stream flows.

Measurements obtained from U.S. Geological Survey water monitoring stations in Masardis and West Enfield show that water levels in the Aroostook and Penobscot rivers have reached their all-time lowest point during this time of the year, according to Nick Stasulis, data section chief for the agency. More than half of the agency’s water monitoring stations in the state recorded measurements in the lowest 10th percentile of all data ever collected, many of which stretch back decades.

The drought is affecting crop yields and has made farmers eligible for government assistance programs.

“We have over 150 years of records at [the Penobscot] location,” Stasulis said. “So certainly that is a significant data set when you’re looking at the historical perspective.”

Representatives from various agencies, such as the National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry convened to discuss the environmental and economic impacts of the drought during the most recent meeting of the Drought Task Force Survey on Thursday. 

Because of the prolonged D2 or severe drought status and the emergence of an extreme drought status in a section of Aroostook County, several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs are available to help farmers, ranchers and some small businesses. 

Corn crops have done well despite the current climate, but most other crops have suffered, including blueberries, according to the Farm Service Agency office’s drought information report. The Farm Service Agency is a unit of the USDA.

While some sections of The County have moved to extreme drought status, the crown of Maine in the St. John Valley reverted from an improved drought status back to severe. 

As harvest break begins for the students in the valley, potato crops have been reported to be light. Hay crops are also half of what they would be during a normal year, according to the Farm Service Agency report. 

“Some farmers are in urgent need for secured hay supply through the winter so they don’t have to reduce their herds unexpectedly,” said Tom Gordon, policy and planning coordinator for the Office of the Commissioner for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. 

The report said that Aroostook is so dry that “streams and rivers can all be walked across without ever getting your feet wet.” 

“The drought could worsen over the next seven days, especially in northern Maine,” Gordon said. 

Measurements of river size are done according to streamflow, or the total amount of water flowing in the river. Several of the measurement stations, such as in Pearce Brook in Houlton and the Ducktrap River in Lincolnville, were approaching zero streamflow conditions, according to Stasulis. 

Over the past 30 years, the only other drought to occur in Maine as severe as this one took place during the early 2000s, from 2001 to 2002. But if this drought continues without rainfall over the next week, it may overtake the one in the early 2000s.

A United States Geological Survey (USGS) water monitoring station located alongside Pearce Brook in Houlton. USGS stations like this one have been recording some of the lowest data measurements for streamflow ever this year. Credit: Alexander MacDougall | BDN

“If things continue another week or so, my guess is we will start getting record lows for a lot of our stations,” Sturgis said. 

Tom Hawley, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, noted that the Aroostook County seat of Houlton had the driest period on record between May 16 and Sept. 15, while the city of Caribou had its warmest summer ever during the same time period. Aroostook County has been one of the hardest-hit locations by the drought this year. 

Caribou and Houlton also posted rainfall deficits of 6.38 inches and 9.36 inches, respectively, putting them below the normal percentage of total rainfall. 

“Every place is down, the yearly precipitation is lower than it was two weeks ago,” Hawley said. “And it just continues to get worse and worse every week that goes by.”