It’s not a drought, but there isn’t a whole lot of water, either

Sawkill Creek is pretty dry. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Although local weather has been dry, with New York State receiving only 25 percent of normal spring and early summer rainfall, we’re not in a drought, according to scientists. Drought is what’s happening in the Midwest, where corn and wheat crops are languishing, and 3.1 million acres of land have been consumed by wildfires.

In Ulster County, spring rains compensated somewhat for dry conditions resulting from the minimal snowmelt following a mild winter, combined with an almost rainless and hot July. But the arid weather is having an effect, with shallow wells going dry, farmers struggling to water their crops, and wildlife under stress.

According to the U.S. Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, there are many definitions of drought, but it is generally considered to “originate from a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time, usually a season or more.” The effects of drought come from a combination of lack of rain, high temperatures, and the demand people place on water supply.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared that the temperatures reported across the U.S. this July are the highest on record, and the period from August 2011 through July of this year was the warmest 12 months ever.

The Midwest has been hardest hit. “In the 18 primary corn-growing states, 30 percent of the crop is now in poor or very poor condition, up from 22 percent the previous week,” reported the U.S. Drought Monitor, a consortium of scientists who compile statistics on drought conditions and classify areas according to severity, D4 being the most extreme.

“This week, we saw extreme (D3) and exceptional (D4) drought continue to expand or intensify over parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Illinois,” wrote Drought Monitor climatologist Brian Fuchs.

The Drought Monitor’s map shows New York State falling in category D0, “abnormally dry.”

“We are not in a drought. Dry periods are not unusual, and there is variation from year to year,” stated Mercedes Padilla, spokesperson for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Referring to the upstate reservoirs that provide drinking water for the city, she said, “System-wide, our current storage is 83.7%, compared to a normal level of 88.1% for this time of year. We monitor reservoir levels and precipitation amounts and forecasts on a daily basis. Ashokan Reservoir storage is 83.1%, right in line with overall system storage.”

Ethan Pierce of the Daniel Smiley Research Center, a weather station that records data at the Mohonk Preserve, agreed that “around here, there’s nothing too out of the ordinary occurring,” adding, “but that in itself is becoming more and more a rare thing,” given the climate fluctuations that have occurred in recent years, generally attributed to global warming.

“To date, dry conditions have been mostly affecting agriculture. Although some public water suppliers have issued water use restrictions, most public water supplies remain in normal conditions,” reported Wendy Rosenbach of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

She added, “Ulster County has precipitation deficits ranging from 2”-10” over the past 90 days. Soil moisture indexes for Ulster County are in the normal range, so it appears that recent rainfalls have been absorbed into the topsoil.”

Shallow wells running dry

However, Troy Johnson of Titan Drilling in Arkville says that at least 20 of his customers, many of them in Shandaken, have experienced failure of their wells. “This year we’re having a lot of problems with shallow wells going dry,” he said. “On drilled wells that we can get our equipment onto, we can drill deeper. In the case of springs, we’re putting in drilled wells for people.”

Deborah DeWan, Executive Director of the Rondout Valley Growers Association (RVGA) said that among the 60 farms in the organization, there’s been a varied response to the dry weather, depending on location. “In the Rondout Valley, soils good for growing tend to be near streams, and farmers who have access to water from streams are faring okay. Upland growers may have a tougher time. If they’re crop farmers, they’re using wells and other systems to irrigate. If they have livestock herds, for meat or dairy, irrigating crops for feed or even for grassfed animals, that can be resource-intensive. It depends on how long a dry spell lasts.”

Ironically, it’s been a good year for the vegetable growers, with crops going into the ground early during a bout of warm weather in April, resulting in an early harvest. For fruit-growers, that pattern was a mixed bag. Early flowering was a disaster for some orchards that were hit by a hard frost later in the spring. But there are already apples in some of the fruit stands, much earlier than usual.

Hopefully, there will be no flooding this year. “Last year there was a huge loss of crops from Hurricane Irene,” said DeWan. “Our farmers lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, with crops under 12 to 20 feet of water in some cases. They’re still recovering from that. A year like this one, for many of these farmers, has been a good year so far.”

Wildlife population cycles

For wildlife, dry weather is part of the cycle of population increase and decrease. But scientists at Hudsonia, an environmental research and education organization, are concerned about threatened species like the Blanding’s turtle, which lives in wetlands. “It needs to have about 10 inches of water in order to use that particular habitat,” explained Hudsonia’s executive director, Erik Kiviat. When water levels drop, the turtles have to seek deeper water or go into an inactive state, not feeding or reproducing. “They may get run over by a car trying to get to another pond, hit by a golf ball, eaten by a predator, or caught by a kid who doesn’t know they’re breaking the law.”

Hudsonia field biologist Ingrid Haeckel, who has been doing field surveys in Woodstock, reported, “Many pools in Woodstock were dry to begin with this year, and those that did hold water dried up fairly early. It has also been a poor year for lowbush blueberries, and drought stress was very evident on the mountains in early July. Those factors may influence the movement of bears, who have been active longer than usual this year (due to the warm winter) and may be experiencing food scarcity in their normal ranges.”

A July 12 message from Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that, due to dry conditions, “Wildfire danger across New York is heightened.” In April, brush fires threatened almost 1,200 acres of land in Suffolk County. DEC has issued a statewide ban on residential brush burning through October 10, suspending all previously issued permits through that date.

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