DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The lack of consistent rain this year — which has reduced the Piscataquis River to a near trickle and caused grass to crunch underfoot — now is prompting concerns about water quality, as well as grass and forest fires.
While southern Piscataquis County is considered one of the driest regions in the state, the entire state is below normal for groundwater levels and surface water flows, according to Greg Stewart, a water specialist with the United States Geological Survey.
“Statewide, stream flows right now are well below normal,” Stewart said Monday. Groundwater conditions, on the other hand, vary throughout the state, with some areas seeing very low conditions, he noted.
Kent Nelson, a Maine Forest Service fire prevention specialist, said Monday that some of the indexes which the forest service checks for dryness of the forest floor are below the levels the state had in 2002, when severe drought conditions persisted.
Stewart, whose agency monitors 21 stream and river locations in Maine, also has seen conditions at or close to those in 2002 in surface water flows and groundwater levels.
“We’re definitely in an extremely dry period. We’re seeing stream flows that are unprecedented,” said Stewart, who was monitoring the Piscataquis River on Monday.
The USGS has been operating a gauge on the Piscataquis River for 109 years, and the flow has never been as low on an Aug. 16 as it was on Monday, he said.
Stewart stopped short of calling the current conditions a drought. The true hydrologic definition of a drought is somewhat unclear, he said.
“The groundwater conditions really haven’t impacted people yet. We may see some very low groundwater levels, but they still have a month or two before they really reach their bottoms,” he said.
Groundwater typically doesn’t bottom out until September, Stewart said. If rain continues to be scarce, well owners could be affected then, he noted. There are usually two low groundwater periods in the year — one in the fall and the other in February and March, according to Stewart.
The low water levels in some parts of the Piscataquis River are causing water quality concerns. Because the water pools in the river, it stays longer and becomes warmer, Stewart said. Since wastewater is discharged into the river, those conditions make it prone to aquatic growth, such as an algae bloom, he added.
“Anytime the flows get down, the temperature of the river generally climbs, so the nutrients in the river have much more time to develop and grow,” he said. “Water quality is always a problem during low flows.”
In such a situation, everything depends upon the rain, and the forest is no exception.
“Things are definitely dry out there, and fortunately we’ve been able to keep the size of the fires to less than a couple of acres,” Nelson of the Maine Forest Service said Monday. There have been 473 grass and forest fires so far this year, about 50 more than last year at this time, he said. The two largest fires this year burned 17 acres in Aroostook County and 10 acres in Danforth.
Nelson said many of the fires have been caused by unattended campfires, which tend to smolder and — when the right conditions present themselves — erupt. It was a campfire that was not fully extinguished over the weekend that was the origin of a blaze that destroyed a new camp and outbuildings on an island in Pushaw Lake, he said.
“We are urging people to use caution in the woods, especially campfires,” Nelson said.