A DRY spring and a searing summer sapped New York City's upstate reservoirs. Now, city officials are hoping that late autumn rains will help the city get through the winter.
If the rains fail, New York City might have to begin a series of drought warnings, which could eventually lead to some form of limits on water consumption if an emergency is enacted.
The New York drought is just about the last water problem facing the nation. Weather forecasters say a drought in the Carolinas has mostly subsided. Heavy rain has ended a dry spell in western Ohio and Indiana. And heavy rains have saturated the West Coast in recent weeks.
``The main area with a water-supply deficit is the New York City reservoirs,'' says Peter Gabrielsen, deputy regional hydrologist for the National Weather Service.
On Nov. 10, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued a drought warning, which requires local water suppliers to intensify voluntary conservation and leak-control efforts. However, city officials have held off moving to the warning stage because their own forecasts indicate the situation will improve.
``We have not crossed the theoretical line to think we could not recover,'' says John Melia, assistant commissioner at the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). ``All we need is one good soaking rain, and we are back in business,'' he adds.
The rains would help to refill the city's three main reservoir systems, which were down to a combined 46.8 percent of capacity as of Nov. 23.
The Delaware and Catskill systems, located west of the Hudson River, normally provide 90 percent of the 1.4 billion gallons of water consumed by the city on a daily basis. The other 10 percent of the city's water comes from the Croton system, located east of the Hudson in Westchester County. However, the Croton system has been taken off line until a filtration plant can be built.
The key for the city will be the precipitation over the next 90 days. In its latest 90-day forecast, the National Weather Service on Nov. 18 predicted slightly above normal precipitation. However, Mr. Gabrielsen says he does not expect water supplies to get back to normal until the spring runoff, mostly from snow.
Heavy rain last week added up to 2 1/2 feet to some of the city's reservoirs. It was the most rain since early summer.
However, Gabrielsen says, ``We still need to monitor and conserve water.''
The drought is also affecting Westchester County residents who get their water supply from New York's reservoirs.
New York City officials say if the reservoirs don't get additional rain, the city will have to move to the drought warning stage. This would prohibit the watering of lawns and washing of cars - of little impact because of the seasonal shift, officials say.
The next stage is a drought emergency, which has four stages, each more severe. The first stage would be a 15 percent cut in consumption for all factories, stores, hotels, and hospitals. Each succeeding stage would cut usage for a wider range of activities.
Even before the drought, the city had started to cut back on its water usage. It now uses about 100 million gallons of water less than it did this time last year. A key factor in the cutbacks is the installation of water meters, so the city can determine how much water is sent to a specific location and how much is consumed. If there is a difference, engineers begin looking for leaks.
The city also expects to begin saving money as buildings begin installing ``low flow'' toilets. In a city of 4 million toilets, the change will save hundreds of millions of gallons of water per day.