On Thursday, bicyclists ride past a flooded area on the Eastern Prom in Portland, where more than 6 inches of rain have fallen so far this month. “We’ll go into the summer months in pretty good shape,” one meteorologist says. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The drought is over.

A map posted Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center shows, for the first time since last May, no area of drought in Maine and only small drought areas remaining in other parts of New England.

Some counties in Maine – most of Hancock and parts of Washington, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Waldo and York – are still considered abnormally dry. That’s a step below drought conditions, but enough to leave some worried that the drought could return when the weather heats up.

“We are being cautiously optimistic,” said Susan Faloon, a spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency. “But we’re not going to stop watching it because we could very well see some areas of the state that go back into a drought situation over the summer months.”

Tom Hawley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Gray, said snow melt and above-average rainfall in April have helped saturate the soil and replenish water sources – and that more rain is on the way.

“Precipitation looks to be above normal for the next two weeks,” he said. “I think we’ll go into the summer months in pretty good shape.”

Portland has received more than 6 inches of rain so far this April, 2 inches above normal, and received nearly 30 inches of above-normal snowfall over the winter. Last year, Portland only received 1.5 inches of rain in April. And the dry spring and summer last year followed a winter with less-than-average snowfall.

“The people most affected were the farmers,” Hawley said. “It came at a time when they were trying to plant their crops, but there wasn’t any rainfall to help them germinate. We had no snow on the ground to help recharge the groundwater.”

Drought conditions first officially appeared in Maine last June, and by the beginning of July, parts of York County were in “severe” drought, the third-most-serious designation. At the end of September, roughly 10 percent of the state was experiencing “extreme” drought, the second-most-severe federal classification.

By the middle of October, almost 70 percent of Maine was experiencing some drought conditions, including large parts of northern and eastern Maine that previously were not affected. The drought area encompassed roughly 1.2 million people, almost the state’s entire population. Extreme drought also was reported in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York.

Heavy storms in late October began to relieve the dryness, but this week is the first with no areas of the state in drought conditions. A small sliver of York County was still designated as a drought zone through last week. Groundwater levels are now back to normal or better than normal across the state, said Nick Stasulis, data section chief for the U.S. Geological Survey in Maine.

“It’s recovered nicely and it’s still going up,” he said.

FIRST MAINE DROUGHT IN 14 YEARS

Maine hadn’t experienced a drought in 14 years. When the State Drought Task Force convened last August, it was the first such meeting since 2002. But the state’s previous drought extended for multiple years rather than months. Stasulis said 17,000 people reported dry wells during the drought in the early 2000s.

The water level was back up Thursday at Chase’s Pond in York, the main source of drinking water for the town. The reservoir level dropped more than 4 feet during the drought, forcing the town to draw about 14 million gallons from the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“All those folks whose wells dried up during the last drought drilled new wells,” Stasulis said. “They drilled their wells deeper. They got better at conserving water.”

Still, well drillers were overwhelmed with calls during the latest drought. By December 2016, 426 dry wells were reported across the state, although Stasulis said the actual number is probably higher. It’s not clear how many wells exist in Maine.

Municipal water sources suffered as well.

Chase’s Pond was down about 4.5 feet in September. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The town of Berwick issued a water quality advisory in August after drought-related conditions turned the water a blackish color, the result of elevated manganese levels in the town water supply. Manganese is a naturally occurring mineral and typically only causes aesthetic problems, but it has been linked to developmental and neurological problems in children exposed to the mineral at extremely high levels. The town advised parents with young children to switch to bottled water.

Town Manager Steve Eldridge said the manganese levels in the water have dropped. Last week, a notice on the Berwick Facebook page told residents they no longer needed to boil their water. Eldridge said the town will spend $35,000 to $40,000 this year to install technology to remove manganese from the water supply.

“I don’t want to have this happen again,” he said.

The York Water District turned to its neighbor when its reservoir dropped more than 4 feet. From September to November, it drew about 14 million gallons of water from the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District. That deal cost a little more than $7,500.

Chase’s Pond, York’s water source, is now back to normal levels. “So we’re in really great shape,” said Don Neumann, superintendent of the York Water District.

LONG-LASTING IMPACT FOR MANY

The drought’s effect will be more lasting for others.

Beekeepers reported fall honey harvests down 50 percent to 100 percent. Low water levels hurt the state’s wild brook trout population, and wildlife biologists have said it may take up to four years for it to fully recover. Gardeners will likely see a slow start to the growing season, and the first foliage for trees and shrubs will likely be smaller than normal, Jeff O’Donal of O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham told the Press Herald last month.

Farmers and livestock producers were among the hardest hit.

The conditions prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare a disaster area that eventually included several counties. Farmers in that area were eligible for emergency loans and other assistance from the federal Farm Service Agency. A call to the Maine Farm Service Agency was not returned Thursday, and it is unclear how many farmers applied for aid.

Steve Sinisi and his wife, Seren, raise beef, pork and poultry at Old Crow Ranch in Durham. They were not able to grow enough forage to feed their cattle this winter, so they had to buy extra feed. They applied in September for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which compensates livestock producers who have suffered grazing losses because of drought.

Sinisi said they were approved and will eventually receive about $2,000. He spent about $5,400 to buy bales of hay from New Brunswick, Canada – the cheapest price he could find because demand was so high in Maine.

“Help is help,” he said. “But we spent some money this winter on feed, that’s for sure.”

PREPARING FOR THE NEXT DRY SPELL

Nina Fuller never found out if she qualified for assistance at Lily Brook Farm in Hollis.

When her well ran dry, she washed her clothes at a laundromat, drank bottled water and took fewer showers for weeks. But she worried about her horses, sheep and goats. She set up rain barrels to collect as much extra water from her gutters as possible, which she said helped her animals.

This year, Fuller wants to install a more expansive water collection system for the future. A plumber drove a deeper well point to give her some relief, and her pond is now fuller than it has ever been. The grass is growing slower than usual, but it’s green.

“I hadn’t seen it green since July of last year,” she said.

The April rain has saturated the soil for now, but Sinisi is worried a dry spell could send the state back to drought.

In the meantime, his cattle are ready for spring.

“They’re looking forward to green grass,” he said. “They are nibbling under every little fence they can fit their noses under.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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