Despite above-normal snowfall last winter, much of New England is experiencing a drier-than-normal spring.

The National Weather Service has classified it as a moderate drought, which means precipitation is slightly below normal. This is a far cry from what’s happening in the West, which is in the grip of a years-long drought classified as “exceptional,” the most severe category, by the weather service.

Even with Thursday’s downpours, Portland is running below normal for rainfall, said James Brown, a meteorologist with the weather service in Gray. He said Portland has received 15.66 inches of precipitation since Jan. 1 but normally gets 18.94 inches through May 29.

Most of that deficit occurred in May, with only 1.36 inches of rain falling through Friday, Brown said. Normal for the month through May 29 is 3.75 inches.

Areas to the south are getting hit harder by low rainfall.

In Boston, which set a snowfall record this winter, rain since March 1 is just 52 percent of normal, the weather service said. In New York City, rainfall is 58 percent of normal; and in Providence, Rhode Island, it’s 60 percent.


There were heavy downpours in Maine on Thursday, Brown said, but the amount of rain that fell varied widely. Officially, Portland got 0.37 inches; but in nearby Gray, at the weather service offices, 0.61 inches fell. In New Sharon, near Skowhegan, 1.34 inches of rain fell, he said.

The forecast calls for more showers this weekend and normal rainfall over the next six to 10 days, Brown said, so the region’s dryness might ease somewhat, calming those who worry that their wells might run dry.

Brown said all that snow this past winter wasn’t especially significant in terms of moisture. Largely because it was so cold, he said, the storms might have dumped 20 inches or more of snow, but the moisture content was no more than that of a lighter snowfall. When those 4-foot piles of snow finally melted, there wasn’t a huge amount of moisture that went into the ground to recharge water levels, he said.

The lack of rain — at least at this stage of the season — might prove beneficial to farmers.

The timing means that farmers can get their crops started without slogging through mud that often can delay the planting season.

“It’s making it possible to get a lot more things done, because we haven’t been having a lot of rainfall,” said Dr. Mark Hutton, a vegetable specialist at the University of Maine. “Field work, field preparation, have not been delayed, as they usually are by rain.”


But the lack of rain is “a double-edged sword,” Hutton said. Farmers are “not being delayed because of excessive moisture, but they’re having to spend time irrigating crops.”

Below-normal rainfall carries benefits beyond somewhat easing farmer’s workloads, said Dr. Rene Moran, a fruit tree specialist at the University of Maine.

“We have applied fewer fungicide sprays and we’re expecting fewer diseases this year” because of the drier weather, Moran said. “The other benefit would be that I expect to have less hail damage. This is the time of the year when we get hailstorms.”

Moran said the downside is greatest for new farmers or those who have planted new trees this year.

“Newly planted trees are very vulnerable to dry weather,” she said. “This means that growers have to spend extra time and money installing irrigation.”

However, Moran said, “Growers are not talking about it that much, so it’s not as bad as the last drought, which I think was 2002-3.”


Both Hutton and Moran said that if the dryness persists into the summer, it could be a bigger problem, particularly for farmers without access to rivers or ponds for irrigation.

Joel Gilbert, who has a farm just south of Livermore, said so far he has been able to keep his fruit trees and row crops well-watered.

“It’s definitely been dry … (but) everything on our farm is irrigated, so we’re actually finding that we’re able to keep up with it,” he said.

In addition to the lesser threat from diseases — an infection called apple scab is easier to control this year because of the dry conditions and there is less mold on his berries — Gilbert welcomes a break from the typically wet conditions of spring.

“For the past several years, we’ve been dealing with torrential rains around this time,” he said. “I think it’s nice not to have so much mud and ruts on our farm. It’s nice to be out on hard ground, though we do hope to see some rain, which will keep our water reservoir up. If, as the season progresses, it stays dry, if the irrigation ponds do not have reserve enough, we will be in trouble.”

However, Gilbert said that while rainfall in Maine may be inconsistent from month to month, he can rely on it over the long haul.

“Here in Maine, that water is such an abundant resource that we’re tapping into it and it’s keeping us alive,” he said.

Portland Press Herald correspondent Sam Norman contributed to this story.

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