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Drought N E*
February 20, 2002
Drought on East Coast Raises Worries of Water Rationing
By IVER PETERSON with BARBARA STEWART
LINTON, N.J., Feb. 19 Through the dry, cold nights and almost balmy winter days, across snowless mountains and under desert-blue skies, a record-setting drought has settled over the New York region and much of the East Coast, raising fears of a spring and summer of water rationing, dying plants and mud flats where water and life once ran.
Water experts who have pored over records for precedents for the current situation are using words like "wild" and "scary." Not only is the Eastern Seaboard feeling the effects of a dry fall and winter, but those are just the latest dry seasons in a dry spell that began in 1998. Unlike most droughts, the current one stretches in an almost unbroken line from Georgia to Maine.
In some Northeastern communities, officials are comparing the current drought with the ones that parched the area in the early 1980's and the mid-1960's, and others are going back to the Depression and the end of the 19th century for comparisons.
Yet even those benchmarks are different: the droughts of the last several decades were summer droughts, while this time, the dry months have stretched into the heart of winter, when the groundwater supply, which begins to subside in the spring, would normally be replenished by snow and rain.
"Historically, when it was so bad, at least we had snow and ice in the wintertime," said Shing-Fu Hsueh, director of water resources for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "But this year winter came and nothing happened. It's like the dry years simply continued nonstop."
Even above ground, the evidence of drought is everywhere.
Last week, the water utility of Stamford, Conn., urged residents to reduce consumption by 15 percent. The Potomac River, around Washington, has been setting daily records for low water flow. A water emergency has been declared for the 15 eastern Pennsylvania counties along the Delaware River. Officials in Orange County, N.Y., say the drought is the worst there in 30 years, while New Jersey is reporting its driest January and February since 1895.
"I would characterize our current situation as something I don't believe we have ever experienced before, and apparently it is not getting any better," Dr. Hsueh said. "It is scary."
The East Coast is not the only part of the country watching the skies for rain or snow. The lingering effects of a multiyear drought are still affecting the Mountain States and Southern California. The Northwest and the Mississippi Valley, however, have received plenty of water.
In the East, the drought so far has mostly meant inconveniences, like longer hikes to fishing holes. Here in western New Jersey today, Andy Henthorn and his son and daughter had to hike 200 yards over a crazed lake bottom to cast their fishing lines into what was left of Spruce Run Reservoir. Mr. Henthorn figured that the drought would have penned a whole reservoir's worth of fish into a pond nearly one-third the lake's normal size. But they still weren't biting.
"I guess the water's too cold," he said.
Hydrologists know that the full effect of the drought will not be felt for five more weeks, when lawns, trees and crops begin to search for moisture in the dry earth. But botanists, wildlife experts and farmers are already taking sharp notice.
"Winter droughts are still droughts," said Douglas LeComte, a senior meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "I tell people, you look out the window and you don't notice anything unusual, but if there is low soil moisture out there and we don't get any in the next few months, we'll be going into a planting season with a problem."
That agency's Drought Severity Index shows conditions of moderate to severe drought up the Atlantic Coast, from the Florida line to the northern tip of Maine. Eastern Pennsylvania, the Hudson River Valley, all of Long Island and most of New England are in the severe drought category, meaning that one would be expected once in 10 years. New Jersey south of the Raritan River and a wide band covering most of inland and northern Maine are listed on the index as suffering extreme drought, expected only once in 20 years.
And experts are concerned that the abundant bright, dry days of this winter, which seemed like such gifts to Northeastern residents, have already locked the region into a water deficit that cannot be made up.
Kim Tripp, vice president for horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, calculated that drought- stricken areas would have to get 15 inches of rain over the next six weeks to bring the levels of reservoirs and groundwater up to average. But 15 inches is a third of a normal year's entire rainfall, about 44 inches, meaning that a complete recovery is all but impossible.
"The timing is a problem," Ms. Tripp said. "Spring growth is the time when there's a huge demand for water. It would take a miracle to make up the water deficit in six weeks."
It is not just farmers who have grounds for worry. Drought has already been blamed for pine beetle infestations along the Atlantic Coast, and inadequate water in the soil will stunt the growth of shrubs and bushes. Mature trees can survive two or three years of drought without serious damage, said Stuart Findlay, an aquatic ecologist at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. But smaller plantings will need substantial watering to thrive just as restrictions on watering lawns and washing cars are being introduced.
Wildlife also suffers, said Michael Principe, deputy commissioner of the New York City Bureau of Water Supply. Lowered water levels in ponds and streams expose aquatic plants to freezing, and the loss of those plants, in turn, affects insect larvae and dragonfly nymphs that depend on them.
"Small fish feed on them, and larger fish on the smaller fish," Dr. Principe said. "That's the whole food chain."
Ralph Hoffman, vice president of the Ashokan-Pepacton chapter of Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit ecology group, said the fishing in New York State would probably be poor for several years. Even last spring, he said, streams were too shallow for rainbow trout to spawn. The situation was worse when the brown trout spawned last fall.
"This spring," he said, "the water tables on the streams are very, very low. There'll be less trout for years to come."
Wide swings in weather conditions, from drought to flooding, are part of the decades-long climate patterns linked to pollution from greenhouse gases, a contributor to global warming, said Janine Bloomfield, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense, a nonprofit group. But, she added, no single drought can be attributed to global warming.
The absence of precedent for the current dry spell leaves water experts scratching their heads.
"We really don't have the kind of historical understanding, the historical record to predict what might happen," said Robert Lent, the Maine district chief for the water resources division of the United States Geological Survey. "These are very unusual conditions."
Last year was Maine's driest in the state's 107 years of record-keeping. A report last month from the state's drought task force, formed last summer, estimated that Maine needed 150 percent of its normal precipitation in the coming months to bring the state out of the drought.
"The chances of this happening are minimal," the report said.
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