Low water levels in the Ithaca area may lead to mandatory water restrictions and rationing.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Low water levels in the Ithaca area may lead to mandatory water restrictions and rationing.

August 21, 2016

Cornell Officials Prepare for Consequences of Summer Drought

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Correction appended 

In response to a severe drought in the Ithaca area, officials from both Cornell and the City of Ithaca are closely monitoring water levels as students arrive back on campus.

“There’s a period of time right around the end of August and the beginning of September where our usage peaks as a county,” said Dan Cogan, Chief of Staff for the City of Ithaca.

In response to this escalating situation, the University has formed a Drought Emergency Planning Team to track the situation and manage potential problems until water levels have risen significantly, The Sun previously reported.

“The current efforts of the DEPT are to assess and respond appropriately to the drop in water supply resulting from the current drought,” said Chris Bordlemay, Cornell’s water and wastewater manager. “We’ve built on a lot of experience because water conservation is a longstanding commitment at Cornell.”

Planning for Low Water Levels

The University released a Stage Two Water Restriction Plan on July 28, informing community members of the severity of the situation and proposing necessary cutbacks for students and faculty.

“To help combat the dry conditions, we each need to contribute creative and consistent behaviors every single day to reduce our water usage,” said Sarah Brylinsky, Cornell’s sustainability communications and integration manager. “Our goal is to reduce our overall daily water usage by 30 percent in order to be resilient during the drought. That means taking every opportunity to look for water savings in our daily habits.”

If the water levels in Fall Creek — where Cornell draws its water — continue to fall, mandatory water restrictions and rations be imposed, The Sun reported.

Recent rainfall in the area has helped hold off a transition into a Stage Three Water Restriction, according to Cogan.

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Precipitation Trends in Ithaca

“We’re a little less alarmed, but still definitely on alert,” Cogan said. “We’re still asking people to not be wasteful with the water.”

Tracing the Water’s Source

Unlike Cornell, the City of Ithaca — including student-based areas such as Collegetown — draws its water from Six Mile Creek and its reservoir, according to Cogan.

“[Cornell’s] water comes right from the stream [Fall Creek], so if the stream gets dry, they don’t have any kind of reserve at all,” Cogan said. “[For the city] if the water ran completely dry we’d have maybe a 30 day supply of water.”

Cornell’s water supply also services the Cornell Heights neighborhood and the Hamlet of Forest Home in the Town of Ithaca, Bordlemay said.

“The water filtration plant does provide water to all students living on campus, which is about half of all undergraduates enrolled at Cornell,” he said.

While the University and the city both receive water from creeks that are currently drying up, the regions around Ithaca, which pump their water from Cayuga Lake, are in better shape.

“[Bolton Point] has tons of water,” Cogan said. “Their issue is more of a limitation of how quickly they can pump the water out and all the way around the city.”

Cornellians Feel Effects

Students and faculty staying in Ithaca over the summer experienced some initial effects of the drought.

“Our sink water turned brown at one point,” said Colby Triolo ’19, who lived in Ithaca this summer. “[However], what I thought was the craziest was that Buttermilk Falls were completely dried up.”

The lack of rainfall was significant, dropping normal water flow down Six Mile Creek from 12 cubic feet per second to four cubic feet per second, according to Cogan.

Bordlemay added that the lowered water levels likely resulted partially from unusual winter and summer weather.

“The lack of snow during the winter and subsequent recharge of groundwater, combined with lack of necessary rains in the spring and summer have dropped stream levels to record lows,” he said.

While current rainfall has raised hopes of the drought concluding, Brylinsky said students should still be wary of the water shortage.

“The recent rain we have gotten has fed the top layer of vegetation so that grass and plants are looking green, but the real issue in a drought is ground water,” she said. “We can expect the drought conditions to last another few weeks, at least.”

The Drought Emergency Planning Team has listed several recommendations for keeping water levels as high as possible and has reached out to the Cornell community for assistance.

“Cornell needs to reduce our daily water use by half a million gallons a day,” said a Sustainable Cornell information sheet released by the University. “For the residence halls, that means we need to reduce about 7,500 gallons in each building, every day.”

The information sheet also recommends that students reduce energy usage, shorten showers and do laundry less frequently.

“It’s important that everyone contributes by making small daily changes so we all thrive together,” Brylinsky said. “For example, cutting down shower times to five minutes can save up to 25 gallons a day per person, which is a huge contribution.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted source Dan Cogan as stating that Ithaca receives its water from Six Mile Creek, when instead he had said that Cornell University’s water flows from Fall Creek. 

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