A small section of Massachusetts is under extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor's latest map posted Thursday, and things are not expected to improve in the near future.
Extreme drought is the fourth highest of the drought monitor's five classifications, and means major crop losses are possible along with widespread water shortages or restrictions. The only higher level is exceptional drought.
The area of Massachusetts northwest of Boston in extreme drought represents less than 4 percent of the state, but it's the first time any part of the state has been classified as extreme since the drought monitor was established in 1999. It's also the first time any of the entire Northeast region has been classified that way during the current dry spell.
"If you look at how often this level of drought occurs in that area, it's once every 20 or 25 years," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, which puts the weekly map together.
About 60 percent of the Northeast was under some sort of drought condition. Areas of severe drought, the third of five levels, have expended in western New York and northern Pennsylvania. Most of the rest of Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and Maine and northern Connecticut and Rhode Island are all under severe drought conditions
The region includes New England, the Middle Atlantic states, Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia, although the latter three states are barely affected by drought, if at all.
The Assabet, Sudbury and Concord rivers watershed area is at the epicenter of the hardest hit swath of Massachusetts.
"This is definitely an unusual and serious situation," said Alison Field-Juma, executive director of Oars, a nonprofit that works to protect, improve, and preserve the trio of connected rivers.
"The Assabet was already at its lowest levels in 36 years and that situation has persisted," she said. "The Sudbury and Concord are also far below normal levels."
The rivers are so low canoes are scraping the riverbed in some areas, water isn't flowing over dams leading to large pools of stagnant water, and fish are concentrating in shrinking areas of the rivers, she said.
"The rivers look nasty," she said.
Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton planned to issue new guidance on the state's drought conditions in the coming days, a spokesman said.
The state's drought management task force met Thursday and recommended that a drought watch issued for portions of the state July 1 be expanded to other areas, including the Connecticut River Valley, and was weighing upgraded designations for central and northeastern Massachusetts.
A drought warning, if issued, would among other things allow state officials to begin developing new measures for reducing water use and coordinate with other northeast states to address drought impacts. A drought emergency would authorize the governor to declare a state of emergency, order stronger water restrictions and seek federal aid.
The region got some scattered rainstorms Wednesday and more are expected this weekend, but it's not enough with rain deficits of six to 12 inches in much of the region.
"These showers might damp down the dust and reduce fire risk a little, but won't make a huge difference," Svoboda said.