Everyone who lives in Maine knows: It has been a dry summer and fall. How dry? According to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University, much of the state's coast was down by about 8 inches of precipitation for the year compared to normal as of the end of October, and the state as a whole was about 5.3 inches down.

National Weather Service data shows that Belfast, which gets average annual precipitation of around 48 inches, had received just over 32 inches through the end of October.

Well service people say they have been busier than usual over the summer and fall, with a spike in calls from homeowners whose wells dried up. Scientists say that not only has 2020 been a dry year overall so far, but also it is the fourth or fifth dry growing season in a row. This, in combination with a change in regional weather patterns and other factors, has meant extra stress for crops and trees.

Cross Well & Pump Co. of Belmont drilled 22 wells from June through October, according to Lois Cross, widow of the late owner Douglas Cross, who died in October. She said their son, Cody Cross, returned to help this summer while his father was ill, and has stayed on with the business.

Cody said the company had received quite a number of calls during the summer from homeowners with dry wells, a few of whom backed out after some rain fell. He said the cost for drilling a well 300 feet deep is around $6,500, and it provides better, cleaner water than a dug well — the type most likely to dry up during a drought.

Trevor Gould, owner of H2O Water Well Drilling in Dixmont, said he serves many customers in Waldo County. He has had 30% to 40% more calls about dry wells than usual this year. In 38 years in the well business, "This is one of the driest years I can remember," he said.

During the worst of the drought in late August and September, Gould was getting three or four calls a day, and was still getting calls into November. As an example of how bad it was, he said he had inspected wells stamped as putting out eight gallons per minute that were only flowing at 3/4 of a gallon per minute.

Gould expects to be busy for weeks to come. "Everybody with a drill rig is booked through January," he said. "We'll be drilling all winter." As of Nov. 25, he said he had drilled six wells in the last two weeks.

He added that the warming weather pattern contributes to ongoing drought, because when it rains on frozen ground during the winter, the water runs off, rather than replenishing the groundwater. When there is plentiful snowpack in the winter, the water can soak into the ground as it warms in the spring.

The same concept was brought up by Ryan Gordon, a hydrogeologist with the Maine Geological Survey, part of the state Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation. He said the state has not so much been seeing a decrease in its average annual precipitation, as a change in when it occurs, and in what form. We have been seeing more precipitation in the winter, he said, and more of it has fallen as rain rather than snow, so it does not stay around long enough to add to the available groundwater.

With a general warming trend in both winter and summer, soil dries out in late spring or early summer and, if not enough rain falls during the growing season, farmers can be especially hurt, he said. The lack of seasonal rain affects the groundwater less than moisture at the surface, Gordon said, so owners of drilled wells are relatively well-off compared to small farmers, who depend on rain to water crops. Farm animals can also be affected; if forage crops, like hay, do poorly because of lack of rain, farmers must supplement their animals' diets with extra feed, which is costly.

This year, he said, blueberries and potatoes were "hammered" by the drought, which hit especially hard in Maine's northernmost regions, and hay was also hurt. In contrast, he said, corn and strawberries were less affected. As of mid-November, he said, conditions had improved everywhere in Maine, except for the southern tip of the state, but drought conditions still persisted over most of the state. As of the end of October, he said, the hardest-hit areas in York County had a precipitation deficit of 13 inches for the year so far.

The federal government's "Drought Monitor" map of Maine (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?ME) for Nov. 25 showed most of the state still in at least a moderate drought, with parts of Aroostook, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties either not in drought at all or just experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Most of York County was still in extreme drought. Most of the coast was in severe drought.

Gordon said if there is below average snowfall this winter, it is possible the drought could extend into next year.

There are things farmers can do to mitigate the effects of drought, and it is the job of Ron Desrosiers, district conservationist at the USDA Field Office in Belfast, to show them how. He said he was aware of a number of farms in the Knox and Waldo county area he covers whose irrigation water supply dried up.

He noted that, from a precipitation perspective, the year started out well, "and then it got progressively drier." The most noteworthy thing about it, he said, was the dry end of the growing season. Different crops need water at different times of the season, he said, and insufficient rain can even affect the next year's crop.

Some of the conservation measures farmers can use to combat drought include soil management, reducing tillage — that is, turning over the soil less, so it has less opportunity to dry out — crop selection and crop rotation, which keeps the soil healthy and builds organic matter to hold moisture.

For more information on implementing these measures, contact Desrosiers at 338-1964, ext. 3. For information on assistance available to farmers and homeowners affected by drought, visit the Maine Emergency Management Agency, maine.gov/mema/hazards/natural-hazards/drought.