Land of Little Rain

Except for the flooding…

With the month nearly two-thirds done, we’ve had about 1.87” of rain for July in my town. An average July sees nearly 5”, so we’re pretty squarely in drought conditions. Particularly when we take into account the fact that, of that July total, 1.27” fell on Monday. Meaning almost all of it ran right down to the river. Leaving a bit over a half inch for the entire rest of the month.

I’m sure some low-lying areas got a good recharge out of Monday’s deluge. My garage was flooded. Fortunately, I thought that might happen and did not park the electric car in there overnight… Had to unclog the drain hole when I got home from work on Tuesday. With my neighbor’s oil-dripping vintage VW in residence, this means standing water is standing filth. Getting the stinking sludge out of there is not at all my favorite job. It’s nice and clean now though. Until the next deluge washes the hillside right back into the building.

In much of Vermont, the soil, perched as it is on steep slopes, can’t absorb that much water at once, especially when it is dry and hardened. And it is dry! Weather Underground doesn’t give data for my town specifically, but their big weather station at the Burlington airport is reporting a shortfall of over 3” on the growing season months thus far. That is, nearly a month’s worth of rain is missing this summer. For 2022, only February and April have met or exceeded average precipitation; and what fell in those two months has not made up for what has not fallen the rest of the year. 

But July has been freakishly dry. And there isn’t much rain in the forecast. Fortunately, it hasn’t been hot, but it’s been windy and wind just sucks up soil and leaf moisture. Also, the forecast for the remainder of the month is very warm. This might just be one of those predictions of what should be happening based on historic averages, not what is likely to be happening based on modeled conditions. But the all the prognosticators — from AccuWeather to NOAA — seem to agree that at least the remainder of this week is going to be toasty, with highs near 90°F and lows around 65°F. Which isn’t particularly low when you are using those nighttime temperatures to cool off the house. And with continuing wind and no rain… it’s going to be a tough time.

Add it all together, and this is a very dry summer. So far, my hand watering in June and the hügelkultur structure both seem to be working for my veg garden. The squashes are only a little wilty each afternoon. Nothing is really dry or dying. But I guess this could be a big contributor to the lack of tomatoes. They love water, and I haven’t been giving them much. I suppose I need to do that if I want tomato sauce this year.

I don’t like watering the garden. I don’t like the expense. But I also have the desert-dweller’s horror of running a hose into the dirt. What else might need that water? Who’s going to be thirsty because I’m watering tomatoes? I know Vermont isn’t quite the zero-sum game as New Mexico, where watering tomatoes does, in fact, mean that some other part of the household water budget is going to go without. But in a drought year like 2022, I tend to go back to my default garden habits… once a desert-rat…

It’s bad here. But it’s actually worse where I used to live in Massachusetts. Here in Vermont, it’s officially “abnormally dry”, bordering on “moderate drought”. (My town seems to be on the line…) Down south, they’re experiencing “severe drought” and word has it that this week might push them into “extreme”, those red blobs on the drought maps. North-central Massachusetts has been in severe to extreme drought conditions nearly every year that I’ve lived in the Northeast. (I didn’t bring it with me! I swear!) I think it’s safe to say that summers are drying out in New England. (And yet the poison ivy is just as lush as ever…)

Now, you weather geeks out there will note that I’ve been talking about two different things here. In my town this year, we are experiencing a large drop in measured precipitation, but the conditions are being labeled only “moderate drought”. Massachusetts is seeing about the same drop in precipitation as we are, it might even be a smaller drop, but their drought level is “severe”. Why?

Because drought is not an absolute rainfall shortage. Drought is relative. Along with precipitation, it takes into account stream flows and soil moisture. Vermont had a much snowier winter than Massachusetts. Soils were recharged with snowmelt, and stream levels are only now just starting to drop after melt season. Massachusetts didn’t get those big dumps of snow that sat around for months slowly melting into the ground. So they’re in worse shape now even though the whole region has had broadly similar total precipitation.

This lack of snow is one of the big zingers in climate change. Precipitation that falls as rain in the cold season doesn’t stick around. It quickly runs to the sea. Especially if there are periods of very cold and very dry weather that will freeze the exposed ground solid — exactly like our Polar Express solstice periods have been for years now. Then, when the polar vortex firms up as winter progresses, that deep-freeze cold retreats north, so that more late winter and early spring precipitation falls as rain — on earth that is still frozen rock hard.

Of course, water that falls in winter in any form can’t be taken up by deciduous plants. Even conifers tend to slow their water uptake in the winter months. So winter rain can’t be easily captured by growing things. If it is not being stored up — in snow or in pools — it will be gone long before plants have a chance to use it. In cold, hilly regions like north-central Massachusetts, winter rain is almost worse than useless… “worse” because that water flowing over hard soil moves fast and can rip apart anything in its path.

So down where there was less snow shoveling in the early part of 2022, there is now more water stress. And this is going to be increasingly common. It may even happen that the snow line moves north of Vermont in my life-time. I might suggest planning on that and building water-catchments into any landscape now. It can’t hurt to have swales and willows putting the breaks on water flow all year round. (Methinks you can’t have too many swales in a land of high relief…)

Meanwhile, it’s dry. I suspect, given trends, it’s safe to assume that it will continue to be dry in summer around here more often than not. And when it does rain, it will probably be in gully-washer floods that will do nothing to alleviate the drought.

Need more swales… And I’m going to have to do something about that flooding garage…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

Wednesday Word & Your Comments

The Wednesday Word for 20 July is


And now… it’s your turn. Anything you feel like sharing (except the usual injunctions).

1 thought on “Land of Little Rain”

  1. Oh no, sorry about your drought. We are in moderate drought here and other parts of the state are just now being able to get to places that have been flooded since spring. All the storms that zoom across the state and head right towards the cities dry up before they get here. It’s really discouraging especially since there have been some summers when the rain has been so frequent that the garden grew lush and I didn’t once have to water. Wet spring and dry summer seems to be the trend for the past few years. I hope we both get a good soaking rain soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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