2020 saw an unusually dry summer. Summer 2021 brought unprecedented heavy summer rains. Now, in 2022, we once again experienced an extremely dry summer. We are entering an era of extremes, says UConn Extension educator in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, a joint faculty member in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and Director of the Connecticut Institute of Water Resources Mike Dietz, who met with UConn Today to discuss droughts and other aspects of the state of the state’s water.
Can you talk about the dramatic differences in precipitation we have had over the past few years?
In 2020 we had a severe drought. Then last year, we had roads washed out in Ashford after the highest flow rates ever recorded in 90 years of data at the Natchaug River and Mount Hope River. It was unbelievable.
We went from drought to the highest flow rate recorded and now this year back to drought. Recently, we were setting low-flow records for those rivers. 2022 has had unbelievably low-flow even for this time of year, which is historically the driest time here. Although UConn only received around 3.5 inches of rain with the storm right after Labor Day, the Norwich area received 8 inches! This was a 100-year event, meaning we only have a 1% chance in any given year of getting this much rain over a 24-hour period. This caused the Yantic River to flow over 1,000 cubic feet per second, which was a new high-flow record for the day. Two weeks prior to this, the river was setting low-flow records for the day.
These severe swings in our climate are being driven by the extra heat in the atmosphere, all this extra energy changing the hydrologic cycle. We are seeing these impacts and the prediction is that these extreme events -- the heavy precipitation events, and the drought periods, are going to continue to get worse.
Do you see municipalities and homeowners taking steps to build resilience against both drought and extreme precipitation?
I'm afraid the answer is probably no.
The big systems are in pretty good shape. When you look at the Metropolitan District (MDC) data for volumes of reservoirs, they were at 87% capacity even before the rainstorm we recently had. According to their website, if we don't get any rain, when the reservoirs are full there is enough water stored for 664 days with current usage.
They are well positioned to deal with droughts because they can capture water in extreme events and hold them, and then have that water for up to years. If we do get into an extended drought period, they've got that capacity.
It's the small local systems that are problematic. For instance, with this drought that we have this summer, people's wells have been running dry. Extended droughts have a real impact on people around here if they have shallow wells because groundwater levels drop in these really dry conditions. People don't think about their water until they turn the tap on and nothing comes out. That gets people's attention and gets people to try to think about what to do.
What kinds of measures can homeowners take to build resilience?
Unfortunately, for most indoor use, there's probably not a lot of that we can shave down these days, unless you're grossly wasting water in your house. Most of our fixtures are now low-flow fixtures, including low-flow toilets, and newer washing machines that are much more water-efficient.
If you look at overall efficiency, UConn Storrs is a great example. We have more people than we've ever had here, but our water use per capita has continued to drop because of the efficient fixtures and systems that have been installed. We're doing a pretty good job.
The one thing that people don’t want to hear is outdoor irrigation for watering lawns, and that is a waste, in my opinion. If you're an agricultural producer or are growing a garden, that's one thing, we need food, but if you are throwing that water on a green lawn, it's just an absolute waste.
That's an area where we can make a difference. It is very tied into neighborhoods and trying to keep up with your neighbors with the idea that everybody's got this nice, lush green lawn. You can't be the one slacker that has the brown lawn. Trying to crack that is tough because it's a real social issue too.
For homeowners, rain barrels are good, but obviously, if you're trying to water a bigger area, it is not as practical.
What does it take to recover from an extended drought like the one we have had this summer?
Throughout the growing season, vegetation is pulling a lot of water out of the shallow groundwater. Streams are fed by groundwater, and that's why late summer is typically the time of year with the lowest flow in the streams, because of the low groundwater level. There's not as much left to enter the streams from the subsurface. When we have this combination of long periods without rain and vegetation pulling that water out, it's a double whammy, drawing that groundwater down excessively.
Depending on the area, because some areas had more severe drought than others, it's going to take more than an inch or two of rain to replenish what has been depleted from the groundwater.
If we finish the season here on the dry side and then go into a dry winter, that will set us up very in a very dangerous position going back into the next growing season. When the vegetation starts pulling that water out again, that's when we would really start to have some problems next year if we don't have a normal winter, precipitation-wise.
What other water issues should we be paying attention to in CT?
Some of my colleagues at the Department of Public Health and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have created a PFAS task force in the state. Testing for PFAS is expensive to do but they are developing a comprehensive strategy to monitor, minimize release, and mitigate PFAS in the environment.
There are some new standards as far as drinking water is concerned, but that doesn't help private-well users, because there are separate regulations for private-well users. There are only requirements for testing when the well is drilled. It's a big need in the state because people don't test their water.
CTIWR had a small program to test private wells. Of the 25 wells tested under the program, the majority were within acceptable limits. However, four had coliform bacteria present, two had high manganese levels, and one had high iron levels.
I have a new project underway with Gary Robbins, with funds from the USDA designed to address the need to test wells more regularly. This will include testing for arsenic, uranium, and lead, in addition to the standard potability parameters.
I would say that reducing road salt is still a big issue. The state legislature recently passed SB 240, which requires Green Snow Pro training for roadside salt application and now that includes private contractors. They're recognizing that road salt is a problem in the state, and they recognize that this training program works. It's a win! It's not as much as we were hoping for in terms of the legislation, but it's a good start and a good recognition that salt is a problem in the state and we're doing something to try to address it.
To keep up with everything water-related around the state of Connecticut, visit the CT Institute of Water Resources website for up-to-date information.