Eileen Bernier waters the garden at her South Portland home on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

An unprecedented lack of rainfall in late spring has pushed almost half the state into drought conditions, and there’s little relief in the forecast, setting up the specter of “extreme conditions” later in the summer.

A stubborn blocking pattern in the jet stream led to the moderate drought that was declared Thursday.

Nearly half the state – from the southern tip of Maine stretching northward into Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, and from Rumford east to Ellsworth and Old Town – is now experiencing moderate drought conditions, according to the National Drought Monitor, published weekly by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The northeastern part of Aroostook County is also included in the new designation.

The Drought Monitor also now classifies the entire state of Maine as “abnormally dry.”

Much of the Northeast, from New York to Maine, has received 25 to 50 percent of normal precipitation over the past 30-60 days, according to the Drought Monitor, and streamflows are well below normal, below the 10th percentile. Some farmers in the region have reported corn leaf rolling, a primary symptom of drought.

Drought is the No. 1 risk factor for the state’s agricultural economy, according to the Maine Emergency Management Agency. During the drought of 2001 to 2003, Maine farmers lost more than $32 million, with Washington and Aroostook counties most affected.

Prolonged droughts can also dry up wells Mainers count on for drinking water. About 45 percent of the state’s population relies on wells, the agency said.

Maine’s Drought Task Force met online Thursday to assess drought conditions across the state and will come together again in two weeks. Drought conditions are not “overly unusual” this time of year in Maine, according to Andrew Pohl, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray.

The last drought in Maine was in the summer of 2016, he said. That drought developed more slowly, with the first indications of drought conditions arriving in June, he said. The dryness peaked with extreme drought in late August and September.

“What’s different about this one,” Pohl said, “is basically on May 15 our precipitation just shut off.”

Since then, he continued, there’s been “an unprecedented lack of rain.”

Since May 15, Portland has received just a quarter-inch of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Normal rainfall for the period is 4.24 inches.

“July is typically our dry time of year,” Pohl said. “If conditions continue, we’re likely going to see peoples’ wells drying up and probably more widespread water restrictions.”

On Tuesday, the Maine Forest Service suspended the online open burning permits required for the outdoor burning of brush and wood debris because of the increased risk of wildfires. Patty Cormier, director of the Maine Forest Service, urged Maine’s fire chiefs and town forest fire wardens to follow suit, or at least use “extreme caution” in issuing written permits locally.

Maine has been experiencing an unusually high number of wildfires this year – 712 fires over 871 acres, the second-highest fire count in a decade, the forest service said.

The heat and lack of rain have made it a tough spring and early summer for Maine gardeners.

Eileen Bernier and Joel Shroder of South Portland, along with their children, spent part of the day Thursday watering their vegetables at the Hinckley Park community garden in South Portland. There is no water source at the garden, so the city trucks in water, and gardeners must haul it in buckets or watering cans to their garden plots.

“They ran out of water a couple of weeks ago, on one of those days when it was almost 90 degrees, and people were out of sorts,” Bernier said. “As soon as the water came in everybody was running for the water tanks.”

Bernier said the heat and lack of rain have already scorched the leaves of the beets the family is trying to grow. They’ve also planted peas, shallots, radishes, pole beans and chard, and have other vegetables growing in their plots at home.

“You have to go out there and water every day because it’s just been incredibly dry,” Bernier said.

She said they’ve also been using a straw mulch to help retain the moisture when they water their vegetables.

Pamela Hargest, a horticulture expert at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said mulching is a good idea, along with regular watering.

“I would say that people really want to stay on top of making sure their vegetables get enough water because it can result in plant stress, which can make them more susceptible to pest and disease problems,” she said.

People at the community garden at Hinckley Park in South Portland water their plots with water from tanks filled by the city. Julie Olbrantz comes every other day to water a plot. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

There’s no clearcut answer for how often to water a garden because that depends on the type of soil, Hargest said, but it’s important to water deeply so that the plants can establish deeper roots. That means keeping the top five or six inches of soil moist, but not saturated.

Hargest also recommends that gardeners buy a rain gauge so they know exactly how much water their gardens are actually getting. “We typically recommend, for vegetable gardens, at least 1¼ to 1½ inches of rain per week.”

The cooperative extension has just released a new “How to Water Your Garden” instructional video that includes resources for home gardeners, part of its Victory Garden series. The video can be found at extension.umaine.edu.

It doesn’t look as if there is much relief in sight. A few scattered showers are expected Saturday and Sunday, Pohl said, “but we don’t have a good, organized, soaking rain anywhere on the horizon.”

Blocking patterns in the upper atmosphere like the one that created this drought usually take a long time to break down, Pohl said.

“If we don’t get precipitation,” he said, “I would imagine by the end of July and early August we would probably be in extreme conditions.”

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