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Ithaca’s primary water supply was within weeks of running dry last month, and farms have been hit hard by unusually dry conditions.
With local streamflows parched by drought, officials in Ithaca, New York warned in late July that a reservoir providing the city with its main source of drinking water could run dry in 30 days time.
Fortunately for the roughly 30,700 residents there, wetter weather arrived in recent weeks. “The rains came,” Dan Cogan, the city’s chief of staff, said by phone Wednesday.
Ithaca is located about 50 miles southwest of Syracuse, in New York’s Finger Lakes Region. Situated at the southern end of Cayuga Lake, the city is known for Cornell University, Ithaca College, and a number of scenic waterfalls and gorges.
Areas throughout upstate New York have struggled this year with severe and extreme levels of drought more commonly associated with places in the American West.
“We don’t see extreme drought very often,” said Jessica Spaccio, a climatologist with the Northeast Regional Climate Center, which is based at Cornell. Referring to the conditions in New York this year, she added: “I would definitely say that this is an outlier.”
That said, Spaccio noted that “with climate change projections, we are expecting to see more of these longer dry spells” and that “more summer droughts are possible.”
On top of worries about the reservoir getting drained, warm and dry conditions are believed to have been a factor in Ithaca's water turning brown for some users, due to high concentrations of a substance found in rocks and soil called manganese.
That’s a problem the city said was being successfully addressed as of last Friday.
“We were telling people that we suspected it was manganese and we had no reason to believe that it was harmful,” Cogan said of the discolored water. “I don’t think most people were drinking it, because it wasn’t necessarily pleasant to drink, it has an odd flavor and it doesn’t look very appetizing.”
The city's water supply comes from the Six Mile Creek watershed, which spans about 46 square miles of mostly forested land near town.
Cogan pays close attention to the flows in Six Mile Creek, and acknowledged that even with the rain in August, the possibility of water shortfalls lingers.
“If we don’t get some significant rain in the next few days, it’s quite possible we will again start drawing down the reservoir,” he said.
For now though, he added: “We still have a significant supply of water.”
The dry weather has not only threatened Ithaca’s drinking water, it has hurt farms in New York as well.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday announced that, due to the drought, 24 upstate counties had been designated as a natural disaster area by the federal government.
Most of these counties are spread across western and central New York, as well as the Finger Lakes region, and the Southern Tier—an area situated along Pennsylvania’s northern border.
Farmers in those counties may be eligible for assistance, such as emergency loans, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, according to Cuomo’s office.
Steve Ammerman, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said in an email Wednesday that losses due to the drought were still being calculated. “It is too soon to know the financial impacts,” he said.
Anecdotally, however, the bureau has heard from farmers that yields from crops such as corn used for animal feed could be off by as much as 50 percent in some of the worst affected places.
Livestock farmers who grow their own feed, meanwhile, may be forced to buy it until next summer, eroding their profits. “It will be especially rough for dairy farmers who are dealing with devastatingly low milk prices too,” Ammerman said.
It was not only a dry summer that contributed to the current drought conditions. Spaccio explained that the snowpack in New York from last winter was lighter than usual, as were springtime rains.
Looking ahead, she referenced a three-month outlook for New York, from a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, projecting increased odds of warmer than usual temperatures and no indication of a significant uptick in precipitation.
“Without a prediction of above normal precip,” Spaccio said, “we’re expecting the drought to last through fall.”
Bill Lucia is a Reporter at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.