A woman sits among piles of blueberry totes.
Arla Casselman sits on some blueberry totes during blueberry harvesting season in August 2019. With John Grote, Casselman runs a 70-acre organic wild blueberry farm called Ewing Fruit Co. in Warren. Credit: Courtesy of John Grote

Maine’s coastal area, its most populous, has been hit hardest by drought this year. Some farmers have seen crop losses, and a number of private wells have run dry, raising concerns about what the drought means for the future, especially with a warming climate.

Eight of 16 counties are experiencing severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Nine counties are experiencing abnormally dry conditions, and 11 counties are in moderate drought.

But droughts aren’t unusual for Maine, and the state has experienced worse droughts in the past. What’s different this year is that the most populated areas are experiencing the consequences the most.

Last year, less-populated northern Maine bore the brunt of a drought. This year, however, rainfall deficits and soaring temperatures accelerated dry conditions on the coast instead, and northern Maine has had no signs of drought.

While dry conditions have intensified during periods of drought, alarming scientists, the state’s overall climate is not getting drier.

What’s happening to water and crops

The drought has prompted some concerns about drinking water, and losses of blueberries and hay.

So far, 104 dry wells have been reported to the state’s dry well survey for 2021-22, collected by Maine’s Drought Task Force, as of Aug. 29. The majority of dry wells were reported in Cumberland, York, Lincoln and Kennebec counties. In comparison, during Maine’s worst drought in the early 2000s, 18,000 dry wells were reported to the state.

Groundwater levels are at a record 30-year low for the month of August, particularly in Windham, Lewiston, Auburn and Oxford Hills, according to Nicholas Stasulis, co-chair of the drought task force and Maine field office chief for the U.S. Geological Survey’s New England Water Science Center.

Since this year’s drought is hitting the most populous areas of the state, some worry about the effect it’s having on drinking water.

“There’s a lot more demand for water in this part of the state, and that made my concerns for this drought higher,” said Sarah Jamison, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s forecast office in Gray.

The drought has also taken a toll on Maine’s wild blueberry crop. This summer, some wild blueberry farms in Washington County saw a 60-percent loss of yield, according to Tom Gordon, the public service coordinator at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

A raincloud blows across a farm that is currently experiencing drought.
A storm blows across one of Ewing Fruit Co.’s blueberry fields in Warren in August 2019. Credit: Courtesy of Arla Casselman

John Grote, who co-owns an organic blueberry farm in Warren called Ewing Fruit Co. with his wife, Arla Casselman, said the harvest this year was one-third of what they harvested last year. Operating since 2012, they process most of the blueberries they harvest themselves.

“We’re seeing huge losses out of the box because the fruit was small,” Grote said. “I can’t recall previous years being worse than this one.”

Dry conditions could also lead to a loss of hay, which farmers use to feed their animals through the winter. The first cutting of hay crops this summer was good, but, due to prolonged dry conditions, grass hasn’t been growing the same.

Annie Watson, one of the owners of Sheepscot Valley Farm in Whitefield, an organic dairy farm, saw very little hay regrowth this year.

“Our pastures all dried up, basically burned up worse than I’ve ever seen in the past nine years that we’ve been farming here,” Watson said.

She will have to reduce the herd size to survive the hay shortage, which means the farm will produce less milk and lose business.

Watson hopes to invest in an irrigation system to “mitigate the issues that are obviously connected to climate change,” she said. She aims to improve the soil to make her products more resilient.

“But when it comes to water, water is life, and without it nothing grows,” Watson said.

Caitlin Frame, one of the owners of Milkhouse Farm and Dairy in Monmouth, an organic dairy farm, observed less growth in her second and third cutting of hay.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work in the past eight years to build back fertility, and, depending on how much work we’ve put into the fields, there are varying levels of drought resiliency,” Frame said.

Her farm has weathered this drought well so far compared with previous years because of the reapplication of organic matter.

Adding organic matter gives the soil more capacity to retain moisture, which is helpful during a drought. Farmers who irrigate are also more likely to avoid crop losses.

But not everyone can install and operate irrigation systems, given their cost. And they are not always practical, especially for blueberry growers.

“Putting in irrigation for the acreage that we’re farming is not really feasible,” said Grote, with Ewing Fruit Co. Without the infrastructure, “We kind of just take it as it is.”

When will this drought end?

Dry conditions have been improving after several coastal areas received multiple inches of rain, but scientists can’t yet predict when this drought will end.  

A map from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Coastal Maine is experiencing severe drought conditions. Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor

Steady, sustained rainfall can help alleviate the serious effects of drought, but a quick rainstorm is not as beneficial and can turn into runoff.

The fall season may bring more rainfall and be a welcome transition.

“What’s advantageous for us is that, with the fall, we get more steady rainfall,” Jamison said.

Just because drought conditions improve, however, doesn’t mean groundwater levels will, too.

“We would need significant rain in order to improve groundwater levels, and we don’t know if that’s going to happen yet,” Stasulis said.

Based on recent forecast models, there’s no way to predict when the drought will get better or worse.

“So at this point, we’re basically just banking on history being our guide and that, in the fall, precipitation events tend to be helpful for drought conditions,” Jamison said.

The drought will at least persist through September, according to the National Integration Drought Information System’s monthly outlook.

Droughts are not unusual in Maine

Since 2016, some parts of Maine have been in some kind of drought during the summer, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Sometimes that means just one area of the state is experiencing drought.

“In 2020, we had some really severe conditions, probably more severe and widespread than we’re seeing now, and it was the same in 2016,” Stasulis said.

While short-term droughts are common in the northeastern United States, the region is also prone to returning to very wet conditions.

For instance Maine’s worst drought in recent history, in the early 2000s, was followed by a predominantly wet decade.

“Most of those years, precipitation was near normal or above normal,” said Sean Birkel, the Maine state climatologist.

Droughts are getting drier, but overall Maine is actually getting wetter

What happens during the whole year affects whether Maine will have drier conditions or a potential drought in the summer, when temperatures are highest. When Maine gets less snow, which has been the long-term trend, it can have less groundwater come summertime.

Decreased snowfall in the winter is a result of warmer temperatures, which can be linked to climate change.

“As the climate warms, the relative length of the snow season is shrinking, and that is producing an overall trend towards earlier snowmelt,” Birkel said.

“Maine’s climate is getting wetter,” Birkel said. “Whether or not drought will become more or less common is not yet known.”

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.