Water shortage cause for concern for Upstate, New York City

“You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.”
— Eric Hoffer

Take two populations, one the users of a bathroom at any Thruway rest stop and the other the users of a bathroom at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection regional headquarters in Kingston. Leave a tap running in both bathrooms. What proportion of people at each location turn the water-wasting tap off when they use the bathroom?

The social-psychology hypothesis would be that a significantly larger proportion of DEP employees and visitors, ever water-conscious, will turn the running tap off than will the random population at the Thruway rest stop.


The main DEP website includes a small box which tracks the average percentage of water capacity in New York City’s vast reservoir system, the normal level over an extended period of time, and the total daily consumption in billions of gallons. Click on the box and you get the percentage of water compared to capacity in each of New York’s seven major reservoirs. That percentage increases after heavy upstate precipitation and then decreases because of constant city consumption.

If the supply of water available for New York City continues to slowly dwindle, as it has been doing in recent months, the gap between the existing levels and the normal levels of water in the reservoirs becomes more palpable — and the people in charge of them get a little more anxious. Though the odds of a serious water emergency this coming year are still distant, it’s a concern for those responsible for the system. If an emergency does come, it is they who will be blamed for not spending enough to assure greater supply.

You can never be safe enough.

The job of any system of water supply is to provide water security. There must be reliable access to sufficient water supplies to meet basic needs, which is a fancy way of saying that water must flow from every tap that’s turned on.


Water quality is also necessary. As the people of Flint, Michigan can tell you, impure water can lead to social disaster. For DEP, the costs of filtration can lead to economic tribulation.

Out of its $14.7-billion budget, the DEP budget for the fiscal year 2016 allocates $1.4 billion, or nine percent, for “the upstate watersheds,” and another $1.2 billion, or eight percent of its budget, for “drinking water supply.”

Mayors may come and go, but pure water must continue to flow from every tap. The $2.6 billlion DEP plans to spend this coming year on its water supply and watershed activities is eight times as much as Ulster County government proposes to spend on its entire budget ($325 million). Just to keep that water supply flowing takes more than three cents of every dollar of New York City’s total governmental operations ($86 billion, including schools and roads).

The water system is inextricably linked to the survival of a growing New York City, the health of its people, and the prosperity of its economy. Its protection is a cause upon which New York City will continue to spend billions of dollars annually for the indefinite future.

The water shortage in Ulster County this year has been causing increasing problems. Anecdotal evidence has been accumulating. In some areas, more than a few residents have been starting to complain of inadequate or impure water supply from their wells.

Rain fell steadily in Ulster County much of last Tuesday. Though the ground wasn’t frozen yet, where I live in Mount Tremper received a pretty thorough soaking. There was some runoff but not much. Water was beginning to run in the barely trickling creekbeds. From the small county bridge at the Four Corners on Old Route 28, I watched the Beaverkill course down in modest quantities into the thirsty Esopus Creek. I drove down Route 28 past the Coldbrook measuring station just west of Boiceville. The rounded stones in the Esopus were wet, and rainwater occupied more of the broad creekbed, which had been almost dry the previous day. The measuring station consists of a tall cement cylinder, on top of which is a small iron structure with equipment in it.



On Monday of last week, the DEP had drawn down the supply of water in its entire system in the previous two weeks by four percent (and in the Ashokan by 3.6 percent). In the next five days, the system drawdown was another six-tenths of one percent and in the Ashokan it declined three-tenths of one percent. The supply of new water from the Esopus into the Ashokan Reservoir as a result of Tuesday’s rain seems to have about approximately halved the rate of loss.

Kingston reported 1.66 inches of rain Tuesday. The rain feeding through into the creeks of Kingston’s Mink Hollow watershed increased the water level at the city’s Cooper Lake Reservoir by 2.5 inches.

It snowed a little Saturday night, with just a dusting in Mount Tremper. It did the same Sunday night. Because if it, the streams ran just a little faster. The snow was heavier in the upper parts of the watershed, and the snow cover will provide water for the streams either from winter melts or in the spring runoff that peaks in late March and April .

In the digital age, we no longer have to look at nature. The United States Geological Service provides us with a national water information website. It reported that the rain had begun to move the gage at Coldbrook around noontime. The water discharge increased spiked from practically nothing earlier in the day to a peak of about 300 cubic feet per second just before midnight on Tuesday evening. That number declined to about 100 cubic feet per second through Wednesday, and drifted downward to about 65 cubic feet through Thursday and Friday. With Sunday’s snow it jumped to 80 — just what had been projected by the NWS beforehand!

How did the much-maligned National Weather Service know that the flow would increase like that? In June 2004, DEP commissioner Chris Ward had announced a partnership between the federal service and his agency. A system was set up to transmit data from the DEP’s 21 water and weather stations in its west-of-the-Hudson watersheds, including the one at Coldbrook, to the National Weather Service over telephone lines every 15 minutes in real time. That data, projections and all, is available to the public on the National Water Information System website. (I’m looking at the water-flow number for Coldbrook for an hour ago right now, and I can compare it with the data from there on that date for the past 83 years.)

“The shared data will help the weather service expand its coverage in the watershed and make more accurate forecasts of storm warnings, floods and other events in the region,” explained the press release at the time. “By better predicting storms and precipitation trends, the expanded coverage by the NWS will also help the DEP manage the water system more efficiently.”

Many meteorologists don’t think the present dearth of water supply, including in the New York City reservoirs, is likely to end in a major threat to water security in 2017.  The likelihood, they say — and at this stage of scientific understanding it is only a likelihood — is that in January a polar vortex will bring relief to the low precipitation levels in the region’s reservoirs and ground tables.

An article on late October in Nature, reprinted in part in Scientific American, predicts that a shift in the polar vortex is likely to bring bursts of frigid cold to eastern North America in February and March, making precipitation in the form of snow and a robust spring runoff more likely.  “Those temperature drops could lead to miserable days in February and March,” the article says the research has found.

Is that bad news or good news?

There is one comment

  1. Rick

    If the City of New York uses about 1 billion gallons of water a day and by a law NYC must discharge about 50 million gallons a day in the Delaware River, remaining supply in all NYC water supplies is about 300 billion gallons (probably less usable capacity), how many days until a water shortage is a problem?. NYC can turn pumps on in Chelsea New York to pump Hudson River Water into the New York City water supply, if they do, do they notify the residents of the city? New York City running out of water? What do you do next?

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