This year is unlike any Earl Bunting has seen during the 34 years he’s been growing apples in Maine.

“I’ve never seen anything close to this,” the owner of Doles Orchard in Limington said Thursday. “It’s a disaster for everybody that’s growing any crop this year.”

Parts of York and Cumberland counties are now experiencing extreme drought conditions after months of unusually warm and dry weather, according to an update posted Thursday by the United States Drought Monitor.

The drought is now threatening fall crops and causing record-low river levels and scattered reports of dry wells. And, with no major rainstorms expected soon, the drought is fueling concerns about groundwater supplies falling through the winter.

Most of Maine is in “severe” drought, though there are “extreme” drought conditions in more than half of York County and a small section of coastal Cumberland County, including Portland, according to the latest weekly report by the national drought monitor maintained by the University of Nebraska. One part of Aroostook County and a tiny sliver of Penobscot County were already in extreme drought. The USDA has declared parts of northern Maine a drought disaster area and made funds available to help farmers who have lost crops.

At Doles Orchard in Limington, Bunting spent $9,000 in July to install an irrigation system with 20,000 feet of tubing to water 7 acres of apple trees. He’s been pumping 240 gallons per minute for an average of 6 hours a day from a 25-acre natural pond and surrounding bog.

“Anybody who doesn’t water this year, their apples are going to be very small,” Bunting said.

Bunting said he only had two significant rainfalls at his pick-your-own orchard this year: 2.5 inches in July and another 1.25 inches from a tropical storm. When he bought apples from a nearby orchard to sell in his store, they were so small Bunting used them in cider instead.

“His were 2-and-a-quarter-inch. Mine were over 3 inches,” he said. “That’s the difference water makes.”

Robert Lent, co-chair of the state’s Drought Task Force, said the biggest impact of the drought is on agricultural crops, including blueberries, potatoes, hay and apples.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared Aroostook County a drought disaster area, a designation that could also make farmers in four contiguous counties eligible for low interest federal emergency loans. The emergency loans may be used for restoring or replacing essential property, paying all or part of production costs, paying for essential family living expenses, reorganizing the farming operation, or refinancing debt.

The last time Maine had such prolonged and severe drought conditions was in 2002, according to the National Weather Service.

“It’s getting worse every day,” said Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the weather service office in Gray. “Right now, we’re expecting warm temperatures through the weekend with no rainfall. We’re hoping for some rain next week. It likely would not be enough to break the drought.”

The period from May 16 – when precipitation look a downturn – to Sept. 24 was the fourth driest on record in the Portland area since record keeping began in 1871. There were 8.17 inches of rain in the roughly four-month period, which is 7.62 inches below average, according to the weather service.

Earl Bunting holds one of his apples, right, which was grown with irrigation this summer, and compares it to a neighbor’s smaller apple, left, that was not irrigated. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Lent, who is also associate director for hydrologic monitoring at the New England Water Science Center, said the onset of drought conditions in Maine happened quickly in the spring.

“We went from normal conditions to drought conditions in about a 30-day period,” he said.

The state has not put any mandatory water conservation measures in place, though the Maine Emergency Management Agency says some people are already voluntarily conserving water.

This drought is a bit different than the last major drought in the area in the early 2000s, Lent said. That drought had a more significant impact on groundwater levels, with more than 1,000 homeowners reporting their wells went dry.

“We haven’t seen that in this drought. There is low water in wells and there are homes without water, but the number is much lower than it was then,” Lent said, noting that many people redrilled wells following the earlier drought.

The Emergency Management Agency launched a Dry Well Survey last month and has received reports of dry wells in Somerset, Waldo, Sagadahoc, Penobscot, Kennebec, Franklin, Knox and Washington counties. The reported wells include drilled and dug wells used for residential, irrigation, livestock, and other purposes.

Some drinking water supplies are stressed, but none is at a critical point, Lent said.

The York Water District recently put out an alert asking for voluntary water conservation on nonessential water use. In August, the water level at Chase’s Pond, which supplies the district, was a foot and a half below the seasonal average because of a combination of drought and unusually high demand for water during a warm summer.

Warmer weather also contributed to more evaporation from lakes, rivers and streams. Portland experienced its  hottest summer on record, with average June, July and August temperatures 3.6 degrees higher than the normal summer temperature in the city.

Nick Stasulis, data section chief for the Maine office of the New England Water Science Center, said the rapid onset of below normal precipitation combined with above normal temperatures has been damaging for streamflows across the state. Rivers were losing water from evaporation, and not getting any new rain.

That combination has resulted in record low streamflows – the amount of water flowing in a river – across Maine. The U.S. Geological Survey has more than 30 stations that have more than 30 years worth of data, which includes the multiyear drought in the early 2000s.

“What we’re seeing right now is that over 90 percent of those sites are below normal,” Stasulis said. “Of those stations, 40 percent – more than a third – are the lowest they’ve ever been for Sept. 24. The rivers are going to look like there’s not enough water in them.”

Particularly notable is the Piscataquis River in Dover-Foxcroft, where there is 117 years worth of data. That site is the lowest it has ever been, with streamflow at 10 percent of what it normally is, Stasulis said.

“I got a call from someone yesterday who said it looks like you could walk across it with sneakers on,” he said.

On Thursday, streamflow in the Aroostook River in Washburn was the lowest since records began for that site in 1930.

Stasulis said there is some good news that comes with the changing season. Cooler temperatures and shorter days will slow evaporation, he said, but more rain is still needed.

The conditions have also led to more than 900 wildfires so far this year in Maine, a number approaching a 20-year high. The state this week warned of high fire danger, even as brush fires broke out in Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth.

“The biggest question is one we can’t answer, which is how long will it last,” Lent said. “Previous droughts have been multiyear. It’s going to take more than a rainstorm to really turn the situation around.”

Maine would need 10 inches of rain in a week to help with low groundwater and surface water levels, Hawley, from the weather service, said. That would be an extremely wet week. Portland has only had 26 inches of rain in the past nine months.

“The rain we get next week might help with the river levels,” Hawley said. “At this time of year we normally see groundwater go down anyway. If we don’t get some good rain in the next couple months before the ground freezes, the groundwater will continue to fall right through winter.”

Maine also needs a big snow season so that melting snow will help replenish groundwater levels next spring, Hawley said.

Hawley suggested people take simple steps to conserve water, including not leaving water running while washing dishes and not using sprinklers to water lawns and gardens.

“Don’t worry about your lawn at this point,” he said.

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