Is the drought of 2016 history?

The Sawkill last November (photo by Dion Ogust)

Say, Dan, can’t you see
that big green tree
Where the water’s running free?
It’s waiting there for you and me.

And water
Cool, clear water.

— Hank Williams lyrics

Kingston’s water commissioners came to the conclusion last Wednesday that the city’s Cooper Lake reservoir, which holds 1.2 billion gallons of water, was back up to normal levels for the season, less than three feet below full. Runoff from the Mink Hollow watershed in springtime or before is expected to fill it later in the winter or in springtime, water superintendent Judith Hansen said.

The commissioners decided that the drought warning in effect for the past several months would end this Wednesday. The Kingston system, which supplies an average flow of 3.5 million gallons per day to about 8500 service connections, is (except for New York City’s) the largest in Ulster County.


Other local jurisdictions are similarly optimistic. New Paltz has the legal right to take some of its water from New York City pipes. Woodstock has an emergency connection to Kingston’s water supply from Cooper Lake that has never been called upon for use. Saugerties, which supplies users an average of 900,000 gallons per day, boasts that its Blue Mountain watershed “is one of the best water supplies in the Northeast,” producing far more water than the town and village consume.

New York City’s seven major reservoirs, with a stupendous total capacity of 552.5 billion gallons, were 24.5 percent below its “normal” (historically consistent) average capacity of 81.4 percent as of December 1. A week ago Monday capacity came within 20 percent of normal levels for the first time in many months. By last Friday, the deficit below “normal” level was just 17.1 percent. This Tuesday, it was down to 15 percent.

Does that mean that the drought of 2016-7 will soon be history? It might be in Kingston, but it won’t be in New York City, according to press spokesman for the city Department of Environmental Protection Adam Bosch.

New York City consumes about a billion gallons of water a day. “We don’t use as much water in a whole year as they do in a day,” noted Kingston’s Judy Hansen. The per-capita amount used of water consumed by each jurisdiction’s water users — both Lilliput and Brobdingnag — does not differ much.

With a promising snow melt expected from the Catskills this springtime, one might think that there’s every hope the gap between actual and normal levels of water in the New York City system will shrink to single digits this coming springtime and that most of the reservoirs will be filled close to capacity. The odds are against that outcome, predicted Bosch.

New York City keeps water quality and water quantity statistics of all kinds. Right now, Bosch said last week, there’s only an inch of snowpack in the higher elevations of the Catskills watersheds — the equivalent of only an inch of rain — and the data shows that only half of that will add to the water in the city reservoirs. We’ll see how this week’s precipitation will affect the data.

In managing its vast system of water supply, New York City takes into consideration turbidity and other measures of quality, its legal obligations to users other than itself, and its cost. It’s a balancing act involving many variables. Because New York City had to build and operate a filtration plant to serve its east-of-Hudson Croton and Kensico watersheds, for instance, that water, which provides about ten percent of total supply, according to Bosch costs about 2.1 times what west-of-Hudson water costs. Other considerations being equal, the DEP is less than eager to make that expensive chlorinated water a large part of what’s supplied to its users.

The amount of water in Gotham’s two major Ulster County reservoirs illustrates this balancing act. On December 1, the Rondout Reservoir was at 93.5 percent of its 49.6 billion gallons of capacity. On January 17, it held 93.9 percent of capacity, virtually unchanged. By contrast, the Ashokan Reservoir held 58.6 percent of its 122.9-billion-gallon capacity on December 1 and 77.9 percent on January 17.

Those are big numbers, hard fully to comprehend. Like Huck Finn before he fled with Jim, I’d rather find one favorite place along the water to watch from.

The place I picked was at Coldbrook west of Boiceville on the Esopus Creek, a couple of miles from where I live. And yes, the reason I picked it was because there’s a gauge there with a historical record of how much water has flowed past that spot in the Esopus every 15 minutes for the past 84 years.
I examined a month’s worth of water flow, which had been at about 400 cubic feet of water flow per second, barely above a trickle. It increased from very little to over 2000 cubic feet per second on December 18 and kept in the neighborhood of 1000 cubic feet per second until the evening of January 3, when it again spiked moderately to about 1500 and began slowly  to diminish again until last Thursday, January 12. Then it jumped back again up to 1800 and was still at 1200 cubic feet per second on Monday, Martin Luther King Day. It was 1100 on Tuesday morning. More rain was expected.

See for yourself what is happening in almost real time.

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In this past month, the average normal capacity in all the DEP reservoirs usually improves from 81.5 percent to 86.4, or 4.9 percent. During this year’s flow, current capacity increased from 60.1 to 69.0 percent, or 8.9 percent. That difference of four percent translates to about 22 billion gallons of ‘extra’ water for New York City — or about 20 full Cooper Lakes’ worth of water.

New York City has managed to reduce its water consumption while its population has increased. Can it continue to do so? With climate change and other forms of uncertainty, assuring water supply is an increasingly expensive proposition. By keeping its water-supply system in good repair, DEP has for the time being provided itself a margin by which it can meet its water needs at even less than a normal level of precipitation. Continuing to do so is so vital a need that it’s worth the billions of dollars it takes to accomplish it.

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