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Drought in Rhode Island

Rhode Island can experience extended periods of dry weather, from single season events, like the drought of 1999, to multi-year events such as experienced in the mid 1960s. Historically, most droughts in Rhode Island have started with dry winters, rather than a dry summer. Rhode Island has had at least six major droughts since 1929. Future long-term drought in Rhode Island will have a greater effect on drinking water supplies as population and land use patterns change, particularly in groundwater dependent areas of the state.

Scituate Reservoir during drought

The amount and the timing of precipitation are key indicators of impending drought. Under normal conditions, late fall and winter precipitation recharges ground water and stream flow prior to the "green-up" period in April and early May. Short-term drought episodes in Rhode Island usually commence just after the green up period, reaching their greatest intensity during the mid-summer and early fall. The 1985 and 1999 droughts, for instance, were preceded by "above normal" precipitation during the spring that was not sufficient to replenish the deficit from the lack of snow and rain during the previous winter and late fall.

Currently, the State of Rhode Island is in a "NORMAL" phase - the lowest level of four drought phases.

State Guide Plan Element #724, Rhode Island Drought Management Plan, was developed to provide government with a framework for coordinated response in times of drought. An interdisciplinary Steering Committee meets regularly to assess current conditions and make determinations regarding phases of drought. Rhode Island works closely with the National Weather Service and the US Geological Survey to coordinate drought phases and indices with neighboring states.

Drought Phases, Indices and Regions

There are seven drought regions in the state that were developed based on precipitation, air temperature, soil type, source of water supply, and municipal or water district boundaries. The plan outlines five levels of drought consistent with the National Weather Service's Watch/Warning system and those used by neighboring Massachusetts. Each level requires increased action and coordination by the Steering Committee member agencies.

Small map of drought regions
Drought Levels

The Steering Committee assigns drought levels based on hydrological indices such as precipitation, groundwater, stream flow and the Palmer Drought Index as well as local supply indices such as static groundwater level, and reservoir levels. The Normal, Advisory and Watch levels are issued statewide. The Warning and Emergency levels are issued on a regional basis, consider local conditions, source of supply and water storage capacity issues.

Implementation: Framework for Strategic Response to Drought

The RI Drought Management Plan vests state responsibility for coordination of its drought management process in the Water Resources Board and plan implementation in the Drought Management Steering Committee. Members of the Steering Committee include federal and state agencies as well as local water suppliers. The Water Resources Board is responsible for maintaining a current contact list, monitoring conditions and convening the Steering Committee when necessary.

Flowchart showing agencies communicating during drought

Drought Management Strategies

Even though average precipitation levels may not change significantly in New England, Rhode Island can anticipate more frequent periods of drought. Consequently, the state needs to take steps to reduce vulnerability to periods of reduced precipitation. One means is by increasing efficiency of water use and allocating high quality [drinking] water, first, to uses that require that quality. Drought management strategies include water demand management; waster supply system management; integration of water and wastewater; and policy, legislative and regulatory considerations. Additionally, each category of water use requires a program tailored to it.

Demand Management

System Management

Integration of water and wastewater planning

Policy, legislative and regulatory considerations

For more information on the state's Water Allocation Program, click here.

State of Rhode Island Web Site. This page last modified
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