This was written in a dune shack in the Province Lands, where, on the day we arrived, the well was not pumping any water. We rationed our limited supply. Until a new pump was installed, we worried it was a dry well rather than a mechanical problem. We had heard of home wells recently gone dry, and in the Beech Forest the shallow ponds are mostly mud.
We have been in a drought for months, and probably longer. Both 2016 and 2020 were notably dry. This July saw virtually no rain, and August brought less than 20 percent of the normal rainfall with above-average temperatures. Stream flows are critically reduced across the Cape, and Provincetown and Eastham have restricted water use. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture has declared Barnstable County and southeast Mass. primary natural disaster areas.
Municipal wells go much deeper into our sole source aquifer than home wells, and so, despite groundwater elevation being just 28 percent of normal, they are not imperiled. And given the above-average temperatures, water demand has been high.
Plants are stressed, with wilt and death evident in gardens. The effects on agriculture, especially the cranberry crop, have been daunting. Fire risk is elevated Cape-wide.
What does all this mean? Is this just a blip, or are we seeing another effect of climate change?
Predictions about long-term trends in rainfall are uncertain. But what we are experiencing is evidence that we can no longer be very confident about our expectations of weather — or for water.
We have long been accustomed to having about 45 inches of rain annually. That expectation for recharging our aquifer — and precipitation provides its only replenishment — has shaped our growth planning for decades. I was a member of the Growth Policy Planning Committee in Provincetown in the late 1980s. Water supply was one of the critical factors, along with solid waste and traffic, that had to be incorporated into development considerations. With the development of new wells, the supply concern abated, and recent development has been limited more by wastewater issues.
Other aspects of the changing climate, including unprecedented heat waves, forest fires, and stronger storms and floods, suggest that this drought cannot be dismissed as a one-off but could become our new reality. And that we must begin to factor in the possibility that we will not get our annual 45 inches of rain in the future.
Conversations with Provincetown and Barnstable County officials with water-supply oversight roles suggest that deep-well supplies are in no imminent danger, but that, if persistent through the winter and spring, drought could force more stringent restrictions to maintain sufficient water volume and pressure.
This should prompt a reconsideration of our potential growth limits. Development has been happening rapidly, especially in the wake of the pandemic. We understand that it cannot be unlimited. Resources are finite, and water is absolutely so. We love that we live surrounded by water, and that we have fine water under our feet. But rising sea levels will reduce the thickness of our aquifer around our shores and increase its depth below the surface. And if we have much reduced recharge with persistent drought, we could face more dry home wells and wetlands by next year.
In the meanwhile, let’s not waste the water we have, lest we find ourselves with “not a drop to drink.”
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].