The lack of rainfall this summer has been great for beach vacations, but extremely dry conditions have left trees, gardens and lawns with a powerful thirst and town water companies pumping like mad to keep up with the demand.
Supply is not an issue, but pumps for the Island municipal water systems are working overtime. Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury are each pumping over two million gallons a day. It is a record summer for water usage, all tied to the drought-like conditions. The Vineyard has had no significant rainfall since July 9.
"We don't have a voluntary water ban in place, but I just hope people are aware and are doing what they can to conserve water," said Deacon Perrotta, water superintendent for the towns of Oak Bluffs and Tisbury. "If you are used to watering your lawn every day, I hope you will water every other day," he said.
Most of southeastern New England has seen little or no rain for weeks. Bob Thompson, a top meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton, said Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Cape Cod and southern Rhode Island are badly in need of rain. On Sunday some areas in the region received a deluge from passing thunderstorms. The Sunday night baseball game at Fenway Park was rained out. "We had significant flash flooding across portions of Norfolk, Northern Plymouth County, Brockton, Quincy and Hingham. It depends on where you are," Mr. Thompson said.
"I was at that ball game," said David Taylor, the state climatologist. "It rained like hell. Yet, when I got home [to North Reading] we only had one tenth of an inch."
At the Edgartown Cooperative Weather Station the rain gauge has been empty for weeks. A passing thunderstorm on Sunday night delivered 0.03 inches of rain, the first measurable amount of rainfall since July 23 when the station received 0.12 inches. The last time the Vineyard had a significant storm was when the remnants of tropical storm Cindy passed by the Island and delivered 1.48 inches of rain on Saturday, July 9.
Despite the scarcity of summer showers; the Island aquifer is healthy, due in part to a winter of heavy snow and a wet spring. At the end of July, the total amount of precipitation for the year was 28.24 inches, or 2.61 inches above normal. Much of that precipitation was recorded as snowfall. The Vineyard received 60 inches of snowfall at the start of the year; 39.50 inches above the normal.
Mr. Thompson said New England saw a rash of northeasters well into the spring. The pattern shifted when a Bermuda high settled over the region in June and stayed put. "The Bermuda high took over," Mr. Thompson said. July rainfall in Dukes County was 64 per cent of the normal amount. Nantucket was 77 per cent of normal amount and Plymouth was 52 per cent.
Total rainfall for July in Edgartown was 2.06 inches.
Fire alert conditions are now high in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, but superintendent John Varkonda said fortunately the air has been humid. "If the dew points were lower I would be a lot more nervous," he said. This is Mr. Varkonda's 18th year at the forest.
William Wilcox, a water resource planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission, keeps track of the groundwater level on the Island by taking regular measurements of the aquifer. Mr. Wilcox said the water table in July is still high and well within the normal range. The groundwater level was just under 17 feet at the end of April, and by July it was 17.8 feet, almost three feet above what it was in February, Mr. Wilcox said.
Mr. Wilcox said there has been some decline, but he called it normal.
The highest elevation of groundwater on the Vineyard can be found off Old County Road in West Tisbury, across the road from Whippoorwill Farm. The groundwater level is 26.7 feet above sea level and as far as Mr. Wilcox can tell it is still rising. "I can't tell you why, but it is definitely on a different schedule," he said.
Island water superintendents are more concerned about mechanical and electrical problems than they are about the availability of water.
"We are pumping more water than we've ever pumped. We've been pumping two million gallons every day since the beginning of August," said Mr. Perrotta. "We usually don't do that but once or twice a year," he said.
Island farmers, including the owners of Morning Glory Farm, Bayes Norton Farm and Whippoorwill Farm, have been pumping water almost continuously onto their crops. Morning Glory Farm owner Debbie Athearn said this week that fuel expenses are a factor for farmers who operate irrigation systems.
In some communities water bans are being imposed. Nantucket has a mandatory water ban with fines for violators. Mr. Perrotta said. He said the town of Mashpee also recently imposed a mandatory watering ban.
In Edgartown, water superintendent Fred Domont said he thinks there will be no need for a water ban, but he said customers are encouraged to conserve water. "It is taxing our equipment. We are pumping around the clock," he said.
The forecast? Mr. Thompson predicted thunderstorms will be the big producers of rainfall for the rest of the summer, unless there is a tropical storm. He said the Bermuda high is keeping southern New England pretty much protected from precipitation, especially tropical storms, although there is some indication that it will change in the weeks ahead. "There could be another front coming through Saturday or Sunday, but it remains to be seen how it goes," he said.
"We may see a dip in the jet stream and then we'll have more of a chance of tropical weather."