Dry Spell: New York Faces Worst Drought in Decades

For those of us living in New York City, this summer’s overall lack of rain may not have registered in any major way, beyond, say, fewer impulse buys of cheap bodega umbrellas. But for our neighbors to the east in Long Island, or westward in Central New York, things are starting to get a bit…crispy.

Dust clouds trail tractors as they plow through fields. Pastures, normally lush and green, are spiky and yellow. Corn stalks are stunted, brown. Streams are running dry. Black bears are raiding bird feeders and garbage cans, searching for additional food.

More than 80% of New York State is currently facing some level of abnormal dryness or drought this summer, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. At least 10% of the state is experiencing what officials have deemed “extreme drought” conditions, complete with major agricultural losses and widespread water shortages or restrictions.



Twenty-four drought-stricken counties in New York have been designated “natural disaster areas” by the USDA. The 13,000+ farms contained within, encompassing some 3.7 million acres, are now eligible for federal assistance.

Stunted corn crops in Phelps, New York. Photo credit: Finger Lakes Times

Hardest hit crops in New York include corn and other crops that farmers rely on to feed their animals. Steve Ammerman, public affairs manager and associate director of public policy for the New York State Farm Bureau, reported that the corn crop, on average, is a foot shorter than last year, and farmers are reporting losses in yield of 50 to 60 percent.

The drought has also cut into quality. The USDA estimates 40 percent of the crop is fair to poor in quality.

These conditions extend beyond New York’s borders, too: as of September 15th, nearly 40% of the Northeast is experiencing some sort of drought, up from 28% the week before.

Beyond a Lack of Rain

This picture may look green, but look closer: the summer drought and sustained heat have killed thousands of pine trees at the Hemlock Haven Christmas tree farm in Oswego County. Photo credit: Payne Horning/WRVO News

The cause of New York’s record drought is more complex than a simple lack of rain. Sustained high temperatures this summer, along with a record warm winter (resulting in minimal snowpack), have contributed to the parched conditions.

This past June was the driest in some parts of the state since 1973, and in the parts of the state experiencing “Extreme Drought,” rainfall over the past 6 months has totaled a meager 50 to 60 percent of normal, with most streamflows in the lowest 5th percentile.

The water level in Fall Creek, the source of Cornell’s water, is low due to the drought. Photo credit: Cornell Chronicle

Long, sunny days and low humidity have continued to dry out plants and soil, so that even when rain does fall, it evaporates quickly and doesn’t make it deep into the soil, where it can help crops and groundwater supplies.

There hasn’t been a long, soaking rainfall in months, David Thomas, a weather service meteorologist in Buffalo, told New York Upstate. Instead, more scattered thunderstorms have been the main source of moisture for much of the state. Thunderstorms dump a lot of rain quickly, so much of it ends up running off rather than soaking in, he said.

The Climate Prediction Center anticipates that the drought is likely to persist through at least the end of the year.

Statewide Drought Watch In Effect; First Time In 14 Years

New York State needs more rain.

For the first time in 14 years, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has issued a drought watch for all 62 counties.

Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state DEC, made the announcement last Friday.

“While most public water supplies are still generally normal throughout the state, below normal precipitation over the last 9 months, low stream flows, and reduced groundwater levels have prompted the need for this action,” Commissioner Seggos said.

A watch is the first of four levels of state drought advisories (“watch,” “warning,” “emergency” and “disaster”). The hardest hit areas in the state thus far are Western New York and the central Southern Tier, reports the Albany Times Union.

The DEC is not issuing any mandatory water use restrictions at the moment, but said that local public water suppliers “may require such measures.”

Water levels in the reservoirs that supply New York City’s drinking water are currently normal.

Precipitation Deficit

There is a “significant precipitation deficit…a lack of rain,” a staff member from the DEC’s Bureau of Water Resource Management told us. Rain shortfalls of 4 to 8 inches have been common over the last three months, the DEC said in a statement.

The dry weather dates back to October 1st — the start of the “water year” — and is beginning to significantly affect other water metrics, the agency said.

Stream flows and groundwater levels are “well below normal” throughout much of the state. Groundwater levels were seasonally worse in June compared to May and they are not expected to improve in the immediate future due to the existing shortfall, the DEC reported.

How You Can Help

The drought watch is expected to continue through the summer. The state has issued water conservation tips that “homeowners can take to voluntarily reduce their water usage”:

  • Fix dripping and leaking faucets and toilets. A faucet leaking 30 drops per minute wastes 54 gallons a month.
  • Raise your lawn mower cutting height. Longer grass needs less water.
  • Water lawns and gardens on alternate mornings instead of every day. Less frequent watering will develop grass with deeper roots, and early morning watering minimizes evaporation.
  • When using automatic lawn watering systems, override the system in wet weather or use a rain gauge to control when and how much water to use. A fixed watering schedule wastes water. Irrigate only when needed.
  • Sweep sidewalks and steps rather than hosing them. Eliminating a weekly 5-minute pavement hose-down could save between 625 and 2500 gallons of water per year depending on the flow rate.

More water saving tips can be found here.

More information on how drought can impact New York State can be seen here.

“We are encouraging residents throughout the state to conserve water whenever possible during the coming months,” Commissioner Seggos added.