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Drought grips NW Corner

CORNWALL — A summer of high temperatures and unusually low rainfall has brought a severe drought to the Northwest Corner, with river levels running low and grass turning to straw.

A survey of area experts indicates the worst may be yet to come.

The impact is being felt by farmers who harvest hay and manage livestock, by landscapers who are losing revenue as lawns have stopped growing and in the region’s forests, where trees are just making a comeback from a spongy moth infestation this past spring.

“During a drought there is not enough water carrying nutrients to the branches to produce good growth, leading to smaller leaves and possibly a total lack of flowers the following year,” said Bruce Bennett, Cornwall Energy Task Force member and tree warden of Kent.

Brittle trees, in addition to poor air quality and reduced crop yields, are characteristic of severe droughts.

During severe drought, water restrictions begin to be implemented and burn permits are suspended.

As of Thursday, Sept. 1, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection website reported the current forest fire danger level remains high in Litchfield County and burn permits are still suspended.

In eastern Connecticut, certain locations continue to experience extreme drought, as defined by widespread crop loss and dry wells.

There is a long way to go before this summer drought can become a thing of the past. Bennett said that 11 inches of rainfall will be required to return to typical water levels.

The National Weather Service indicated new precipitation amounts of between 1 and 2 inches were possible from the rain following Labor Day weekend.

Karen Kalenauskas, president of the Litchfield County Farm Bureau, said the quick bursts of rain that fell last week aren’t quite what we need to recover.

“We got about 3 inches in 45 minutes but all the rain ran off and didn’t soak the way we want,” she said. “It helped but we would like a nice, long, all-day soaking rain.”

Joan Nichols, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association, explained some of the struggles our state’s farmers have experienced as a result of the drought.

“Some dairy and poultry farmers have had to ship water in, with others pulling water from the municipal water systems because their wells have gone dry,” said Nichols.

Dairy cattle drink gallons of water each day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that a growing animal or lactating cow can require up to 2 gallons per 100 pounds of body weight.

Nichols warned that the drought will cause adverse affects for the off-season as well.

“Hay production is way down,” said Nichols. “Many farms have not been able to get a second cutting in.”

Janna Siller, farm director at Adamah Farm in Falls Village, echoed the concerns that lie ahead.

“If it doesn’t start raining soon it will be hard to establish our fall cover crop, the plants we grow to rejuvenate the soil for next season,” she said.

The seasonal yield was down this year at Adamah and area wildlife struggled to survive as well, putting additional strain on the crops.

“Mammal pressure on the farm has been much heavier this season,” said Siller. “The raccoons, squirrels, mice and voles all seem to be searching for moisture and they find it in our irrigated crops.”

In addition to agricultural concerns, the forests of the Northwest Corner have been under stress as well. The drought may prove to be a deadly combination for trees that were defoliated by spongy moths this past spring.

“During the 2016 defoliation and drought in eastern Connecticut, thousands of oak trees perished because of this combination,” said Bennett. “I can only hope the good rain that we had this spring will prevent that from happening here.”

The environment has been forced to cope with compounding stress factors year after year recently.

“This time last year the main concern was flooding; this year it’s the complete opposite,” Nichols said.

The graph above shows streamflow levels at the Falls Village monitoring location along the Housatonic River. At the time of this reading, the flow level was just 4% of the level recorded a year prior.

Steve Culton, a fly-fishing guide and instructor who frequents the Housatonic River, advised that fishing on the river in current conditions would only add stress to an already vulnerable fish population.

“The stress threshold for smallmouth bass is 76 degrees. In Kent this summer I was getting water temperatures of 82 degrees,” Culton said. “Normally I would be hitting the Housatonic two or three times a week in August. I’m not fishing it at all right now.”

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