A drought is worth one thousand two hundred twelve words

I can’t look at numbers. They’re meaningless to me. I understand there’s something called a spreadsheet. To me this sounds like bedding. In high school, I got my only D in math. And I got it from Ms. Dibblee, whom I loved, and who loved me, but she had no choice because I was so hopeless.

Numbers. A curse. In our system, I understand there are 10 of them, starting with something called zero, which is nothing — so why don’t they just call it nothing? Then these numbers go all the way up through 9. 

But then you run out of them, so you have to start grouping them together: 10, 11, 12. Each with its own unique name. Maddening. 

And eventually you run out of the two-number numbers and you’re forced to further complicate matters with three-number numbers: 100, 101, 102. 

Followed by the four-number numbers, which require commas: 1,000 and 1,001 and 1,002, and it’s even more mind-boggling after that.

So when they start talking about drought in terms of numbers, I’m afraid my eyes glaze over. The U.S. Geological Survey reportedly recorded the Ipswich River flowing at a mind-boggling 0.07 cubic feet per second. It’s mind-boggling to me because it’s three numbers and a decimal point. But basically, the river is going slow, right?

“Basically,” says Ipswich River Watershed Association executive director Wayne Castonguay, “zero.”

Ah, zero! I remember this one. That’s the same as nothing.

“The river is dead,” Castonguay says.

Actually, he adds, the river’s flow for the past few weeks has been registering as “negative.”

Which is another entire set of numbers, with minus signs in front of them. Worse than zero, then. Less than nothing. The water that would normally be flowing downstream is actually seeping into the ground because the earth is so thirsty.

My eyes are crossing. 350,000 — a huge number — is how many people and businesses the Ipswich River provides drinking water for. But 35 — a relatively small number — is how many miles long the river is.

80 is the percentage of water exported, so it can’t help replenish the watershed. 90 is the percentage of these withdrawals exempt from regulation. 13 is the number of towns the river flows through before it even gets to Ipswich.

And 15,000,000 — a number so big, it needs not one but two commas — is how many gallons of water are wasted per day thanks to outdoor watering, according to an American Rivers report last year.

No wonder we’re in negative numbers for flow.

The drought is hell for math-challenged persons.

The U.S. Drought Monitor organization ranks droughts from D-zero (abnormally dry) up to D4 (exceptional drought). The Commonwealth of Massachusetts ranks droughts from Level 1 (mild) to Level 4 (emergency). Ipswich at this writing is at Level 3 (critical), which seems plenty bad enough. 

The EEA also publishes a color-coded map of the state, apparently for people like me. I’m grateful. It shows, without using numbers, which areas are droughtier. The current map is essentially orange, orange, and orange. I understand perfectly.

The numbers may be a blur to me, but I do get the vibe. I think, taken all together, the numbers bring me a mystical message:

“Stop wasting water. Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth or shaving — you’re squandering almost 2.5 gallons a minute. Stick a bowl in the sink when you wash produce; use the wastewater for your houseplants. Wait till you have a full load before running your washing machine or dishwasher. Take a quick shower instead of filling the dang bathtub. And for Pete’s sake, let your stupid lawn go.”

Heed the voice of the numbers, my people! saith the failed math student. If all 13,785 Ipswich residents make a 96.81% effort, we might get our river back. Or at least a 24.62% trickle.

(Doug Brendel lives adjacent to a bone-dry, snow-white grass meadow on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Explore his parched world at DougBrendel.com.)

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