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Drought N Y*

January 28, 2002

With Reservoirs Low, Mayor Plans to Issue Drought Warning


he warm, dry winter has left the reservoirs that supply water to New York City only half as full as they usually are at this time of year, prompting Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to call yesterday for a series of voluntary measures to cut water consumption.

The upstate reservoirs that supply the city are at only 41.5 percent of their capacity, city officials said. The normal level for this time of year is 80.5 percent. Mr. Bloomberg said the city would soon issue its first drought warning since 1995, an indication that its reservoirs may not fill up by June, when they are supposed to.

"There are not a lot of storms on their way, as far as we can tell, so this is a problem that is going to get worse," Mr. Bloomberg said at a news conference on the lawn of Gracie Mansion, on the banks of the East River. "The question is, what can we do about it? And conservation is the answer."

The mayor ticked off a host of recommendations for saving water, from fixing leaky faucets to running dishwashers only when they are full to cutting shower times in half. ("Get in, turn it on, get it to the right temperature, lather up, get rid of the soap and get out," was his prescription for ablutions.)

New York City is hardly alone in its water woes. Twenty of New Jersey's 21 counties are under drought warnings. Drought warnings are also in effect in 21 counties in New York State, including Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan and Dutchess.

The city's watershed area got about 11 inches less rain in 2001 than it usually gets, officials said.

"Basically, what we have here is a failure of nature to cooperate," Mr. Bloomberg said.

The unusually warm weather has compounded the problem, said Joel A. Miele Sr., the commissioner of the city's Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Miele explained that winter rains usually fall onto frozen ground and quickly run off into the reservoirs, but the ground has been so warm this winter that much of the rain that falls is absorbed before it reaches the reservoirs.

The city's reservoirs were further drained last summer when the reservoirs in its Delaware system — which, along with the Catskill and Croton systems, provide the city's drinking water — were required to keep the Delaware River at levels mandated by law. The city released a record-setting 110 billion gallons into the Delaware River.

And Mr. Bloomberg said that a leak in one of the city's supply tunnels pours out 20 million to 38 million gallons of water each day. But he said that fixing the leak, which has existed for decades, would prove difficult and would drain a number of ponds and streams that have formed above it.

The city declared a drought watch on Dec. 23, meaning that officials calculated that there was only a 50 percent chance that city reservoirs would be full by June. Mr. Bloomberg said that the city would upgrade the watch to a drought warning within days, which would signal that the chances the reservoirs would fill up by June had dropped to 33 percent.

New Yorkers use an average of 1.2 billion gallons of water each day, officials said. Water consumption has fallen in the past few years; as recently as 1991, the city went through an average of 1.45 billion gallons a day. Officials attributed the decline to conservation efforts, especially the installation of 1.7 million water-saving toilets and other plumbing fixtures.

Under a drought warning, the city would call for voluntary conservation measures, restrict water use for Parks Department fountains and golf courses, ask the Sanitation Department to suspend street flushing activities and would call on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reduce its fleet-washing activities.

If things continue to worsen, and late winter and spring showers fail to materialize, the city would declare a drought emergency. That would happen only if officials decided that there was a reasonable probability that the city's reservoirs could be drained unless stringent mandatory measures were taken to reduce water consumption. The city's last drought emergency was in 1989.

To forestall the need for a drought emergency, officials are urging people to begin saving water. Mr. Bloomberg asked New Yorkers to report open or leaking fire hydrants to the Department of Environmental Protection's 24-hour phone line, (718) DEP-HELP, or (718) 337-4357. He also called on residents to save water by turning off the taps while brushing teeth or shaving, running only full washing machines and dishwashers and sweeping driveways and sidewalks rather than hosing them down. "We're all in this together," he said.

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