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Rivers Barest Levels*

03/27/2002 - Updated 11:03 PM ET

Rivers down to barest of levels

By Traci Watson and Paul Overberg, USA TODAY

DEPOSIT, N.Y. — In good times, one of the best fly-fishing rivers in the eastern United States surges past this Catskills town, its waters full of magnificent trout. These are not good times. Ten months of drought have bled Deposit's river to a puny stream. In some spots, it can be easily crossed on foot. Fishery biologists say they fear that by July, the river will be so low and so warm that the trout won't bite and might die in massive fish kills. Neither scenario would lure anglers, who usually bring millions of dollars a year to the local economy.

The plight of Deposit's river is not unusual.

A USA TODAY analysis found that scores of the nation's rivers fell to historic low levels during the past four months.

Using U.S. Geological Survey data that track the flow of rivers nationwide, the analysis identified 59 points on 57 rivers that reached record low levels in March.

The analysis showed that 40 of those points also had reached a record low in one of the months of December, January or February. Less water flowed down these rivers than at any comparable time in at least 30 years and, in many cases, as long as 80 years.

Drought has drained more than the nation's rivers.

Across America, drought has parched soil, dried up once-reliable wells and all but emptied drinking-water reservoirs. Rural folk and city-dwellers alike are feeling the pinch from the shortfalls of rain and snow.

Using temperature and precipitation data, federal scientists calculate that severe or extreme drought has spread over 21% of the country.

More than half the states have been affected, among them almost every single state along the East Coast. Only those states along the West Coast and in the Mississippi Valley have been spared.

The total area stricken by drought is only slightly larger than normal for this time of year. But experts say the severity and persistence of the drought is much worse than normal.

"What's unusual is we're seeing some pretty intense multiyear droughts," says Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Monitoring Center at the University of Nebraska.

Also unusual: the wintertime drought that gripped the Eastern Seaboard, from the northernmost tip of Maine to the southern coast of Georgia. Despite the arrival of spring rains, soils and reservoirs in the East are still extremely dry.

Unless there are torrential rains in the next few months, residents in places such as the Philadelphia and New York metropolitan areas might not be able to water their lawns or wash their cars this summer. And the drought is already having graver consequences in rural communities.

More than 1,000 wells have gone dry in small towns in Maine, where some residents have been forced to haul drinking water from springs in the next town.

Farmers in the Southeast are facing stunted crops. Ranchers in the Northern Plains are being forced to sell off their herds, even their land.

And marina owners, innkeepers and outdoor guides in tourism-dependent towns from New York to Wyoming are praying for wet weather.

"Keep your fingers crossed and think snow for the West," urges Dick Larsen of the Department of Water Resources in Idaho, where snow season lasts until mid-April. Melting snow is crucial to filling reservoirs in the West. "It's about survival."

Nation's 2nd-driest February

Last month was the nation's second-driest February since reliable record-keeping began in 1895.

The period from Sept. 1 through Feb. 28 — the months meteorologists count as fall and winter — was the driest for seven states (Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia) and the second-driest for four more (Maryland, North Carolina, Rhode Island and West Virginia).

Maine had its driest winter in the 108 years that records have been kept.

Many areas in the Mid-Atlantic region are 15 inches or more below their normal precipitation for the period starting July 2001 and ending in February 2002.

Another way of seeing the drought's impact is to look at how much water is flowing down the nation's rivers.

USA TODAY analyzed data on more than 3,000 rivers from the U.S. Geological Survey, which collects daily readings from 4,800 points along those rivers.

The results identified 59 sites on 57 rivers that fell to historic low levels.

Most were concentrated in the East, especially the Mid-Atlantic region, where rain and snow have been scant for months or years:

New Jersey is home to eight of the 57 rivers.

That might be partly because a relatively high number of the state's rivers have measuring devices on them, says Robert Schopp, a hydrologist with the New Jersey office of the U.S. Geological Survey. But the "main reason," he says, is "rainfall has been deficient."

Virginia accounts for seven.

"It comes as no surprise to us," says Ward Staubitz, who is the chief of the geological survey's Virginia office in Richmond. "We've had wet periods and dry periods, but cumulatively we've had less than normal precipitation over the last four years."

Things have been so bad in Virginia and other states that government officials have had to resort to a step they hate almost as much as levying new taxes: imposing limits on water use.

Residents of Roanoke, Va., can't water gardens except between 7 p.m. and 10 a.m. Homeowners in the Atlanta area are taking turns using their lawn sprinklers. Restaurants in southeastern Pennsylvania can serve water only upon request.

On Tuesday, New York City imposed mandatory curbs that take effect Monday. The restrictions shut down ornamental fountains, prohibit washing sidewalks and curtail watering lawns.

Maryland will soon put restrictions on parched counties in the central parts of the state, officials say. Earlier this month, New Jersey's governor imposed statewide curbs on car washing, ornamental fountains and other water use.

Praying for 'white gold' and rain

Look at nearly any part of the nation, and a larger portrait of drought comes into focus:

In Idaho, most farmers who grow potatoes, corn and other crops depend on water from melting snow to irrigate their fields. But this year, the mountains feeding the state's major source of irrigation water, the Snake River, hold 20% less snow than normal.

In a state where heavy snow counts as good weather, this is the third bad winter in a row.

The lack of snow is the major topic of conversation in rural counties, state spokesman Larsen says. "We need far above average just to get us back to normal, and we're not getting that," he says.

In Colorado's mountains, snow levels are 40% below average. Unless there are unprecedented April blizzards, this also will be the third consecutive year of meager snowfall. That's bad for reservoirs and irrigation canals, which normally fill with melted snow.

The lack of what's locally known as "white gold" has caused anxiety for farmers and ski resort operators alike: The wheat crop is starting to go south, and some resorts are in trouble.

"If things don't change, what you're going to see on the news (this summer) is fires," says Reagan Waskom, a water resource specialist at Colorado State University.

Across Maine, there was less snow by mid-March than in all but a quarter of the winters on record. More than 1,000 private wells have run dry. That has forced some residents to fill up jugs of drinking water at outdoor springs or from faucets in public buildings.

Wildlife is in bad shape, too. "The real concern is this spring," says Dana Murch, a member of Maine's drought task force. "We're draining these big lakes. If they don't fill up again, the loons may not nest and the bass may not be successful in spawning."

In Georgia, the dry spell that started in 1998 is being compared to the great drought of the 1920s. Statewide water restrictions may be tightened.

"We will not be able to receive enough rainfall in March — unless something extremely unusual happens — to recharge the groundwater, to recharge our streams and reservoirs," state climatologist David Stooksbury says.

"Things do not look very hopeful for this summer," he says.

In the Southeast, one cause of drought was the climate condition La Niña, which affected the region from 1998 through early 2002.

La Niña first showed itself as a big pool of cold water in the Pacific Ocean off South America. It changed the course of the jet stream over the USA and moved storms away from the Southeastern states. That led to dry summers and dry winters, which left rivers and reservoirs unreplenished. (For more on climate conditions and drought, see map, 14A .)

Contrary to a common perception, normal swings in climate, not global warming, are to blame for drought, experts say.

"I'd attribute it to natural variability," says Jack Kelly, director of the National Weather Service. "These things happen."

Keeping the fish alive

With no relief in sight, all that Deposit and its 1,900 residents can do is pray for rain to rescue their trout-laden river, the West Branch Delaware.

The West Branch, as locals call it, boasts 18 miles of glass-clear water, forested banks and remarkable fish. It has a pedigree, too. In the late 1700s, the first American fly fishermen learned their art on the Neversink River, 40 miles south of the West Branch.

Modern fishermen still flock to the Neversink. But now they also flock to the West Branch for trout that are a rare breed on the East Coast. These trout are born wild, not raised in concrete tanks by humans. They are fat and shiny and strong.

"Most wild fish are like this," says regional fly-fishing guide Robert Wills, holding his fingers six inches apart. "But our fish are big. They pull harder than any fish, except a few strains from out West."

Usually, the anglers start arriving in early spring and barely stop until late fall. They stay in local cabins, hire local guides and leave nice tips at local cafes. In a region that doesn't have much income beyond a little stone quarrying, some logging and a few factories, the fishermen are a godsend. The angling group Trout Unlimited estimates that the fishing on the West Branch and two neighboring rivers is worth $30 million a year to the economy of Deposit and other nearby towns.

"If we don't have the fishermen, forget it," says Stacey Costello, an owner of the Circle E Diner in Hancock, N.Y., population 3,500.

"If we don't get rain, it's going to be bad," chimes in Tara Rogers, the Circle E's short-order cook.

The economic lifeblood of the region is the river. That would be fine if the West Branch depended directly on rain and snow for water. But it doesn't.

Instead, this section of the West Branch starts at Cannonsville Reservoir, which is a 96 billion-gallon lake that supplies New York City. When Cannonsville and two other city reservoirs nearby sank to drought level in late November, defined as a total of 70 billion gallons in all three, the lake's guardians cut the flow of water from the lake into the West Branch to a trickle.

Then, the three reservoirs held 25.6 % of total capacity, or 69.3 billion gallons. The reservoir has risen a bit since, but the West Branch has shrunk to almost nothing in Deposit and nearby towns.

"That's the river bottom," says Jim Serio, a Hancock fly-fishing guide and real estate broker as he stands on the bank of the West Branch. He points to some low, moss-covered islands in the river. "It should be covered."

"Fish spawn in those gravel beds that are now exposed. The eggs are frozen, and we've lost some small fish," Serio says.

On Monday, the three regional reservoirs were tens of billions gallons below where they need to be before the tap to the West Branch is fully opened. Some of the people who depend on the West Branch aren't waiting for rain.

"I'm planning to pack my bags and get out of here as early as I can," says Wills, who leaves his business in Starlight, Pa., each summer to guide fly fishermen in Wyoming.

"The thing that makes it so frustrating is that we don't need a lot of water," he says.

"All we need," Wills says, "is enough to keep the fish alive and keep the people coming."

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