Recent downpours may seem like good news for Ithaca’s ongoing drought, but experts say the coast may not be clear until the city receives sufficient snowfall.
Ithaca has had periodic droughts since 1893, when the city began recording data on rainfall. However, their frequency has actually decreased since the 1970s, according to Mark Wysocki, a senior lecturer in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
“So the question then becomes: maybe climate change is doing the opposite and giving us more rainfall and fewer droughts,” Wysocki said of this trend.
In terms of precipitation, Wysocki said the current year is not an abnormality when considered in the broader scope of Ithaca’s rainfall history.
“Right now [year to date] we are comparable to 1969, the last time we had a drought like this,” he said. “We should have had 28.89 inches in an average year, and we only received 21.67, so we’re 8.22 inches behind.”
The Driest Winter on Record
Droughts begin with a lack of snowfall, according to Wysocki. He said last winter — the driest on record — set the stage for water shortages and was compounded by the fact that tropical storms in the past few months have not traveled far enough north to hit Ithaca.
“The reason for that is snow is covering a large area, then spring comes and the snow melts, and all that water goes into the reservoirs and the groundwater,” Wysocki said. “If you don’t have that snowfall, then you’re starting the summer off behind, and summer precipitation is very spotty, so some people get it and some people don’t. For this particular year, the people who have been getting precipitation are the people to the east of us.”
To alleviate the drought, Wysocki said Ithaca is hoping to see an increase in winter precipitation between Oct. 1 and May 31 to supply water. However, the 8.22 inches of precipitation that Ithaca needs must occur over a three-week period or longer to replenish groundwater.
“Water just runs off if we get rain all in one day,” he said. “The ground can’t absorb it fast enough. We are banking on an increase in our fall precipitation and specifically, we’re hoping for more snowfall. In the short term, for the year, we need those 8.22 inches to reach normal levels, ideally over the next month.”
If this winter is also extremely dry, the lack of precipitation “would make the impact of the drought larger, as we will start the year behind in precipitation,” Wysocki added.
Chris Bordlemay, Cornell’s water and wastewater manager, agreed with Wysocki, saying that Ithaca needs “a decent snowpack to slowly melt in the spring to fully recharge.”
The city is currently experiencing a “green drought,” in which “we have enough rain to keep vegetation alive, but our groundwater sources are still very low,” according to Sarah Brylinski, sustainability communications and integration manager in the Energy and Sustainability Department.
The campus is experiencing a Stage Two drought with stable water levels, Bordlemay said, adding that he does not anticipate that Cornell will progress into Stage 3. Cornell entered Stage Two drought conditions on July 28 and has remained at that level since, according to the University.
A ‘Wake-Up Call’ for the Cornell Community
Brylinski credited the stability of drought conditions to the “tremendous efforts” of utilities, facilities and staff across campus, who have made cutbacks and changes to operational water usage. Bordlemay said he remains confident in Cornell’s ability to supply water to the campus, even if water levels drop to historic lows.
“Cornell is committed to finding solutions in long-term resiliency and sustainability for water supply on campus,” Brylinski said.
Countering Brylinski’s optimism, Bordlemay said the University only managed to achieve its water reduction goal — 30 percent less than last year’s baseline — for the first few weeks of the semester. Since then, water usage has only decreased by 18 to 20 percent from last year.
Brylinski nevertheless praised Cornellians’ commitment to water reduction, citing initiatives such as Cornell dining’s use of paper plates and the ‘Energy Smackdown: Every Drop Counts competition,’ in which residential halls competed to limit their water usage. The University has also installed low-flow showerheads in all residence halls and athletic facilities and plans to continue using them after the drought.
The biggest water consumers on campus are the Central Energy Plant, the Cornell Heights assisted living facility and the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory — home to the particle physics accelerator, during its operational hours — according to Bordlemay.
The most successful aspect of Cornell’s water reduction policy so far has been a “reduction in irrigation water and finding alternative non-potable sources,” according to Bordlemay.
Ashley Stappenbeck ’18, a residential advisor in Court-Kay-Bauer Hall, said although she encourages residents to use the shower timers provided by the University and has tried to educate her students about the drought’s severity, many have trouble remembering to conserve water.
“I don’t know how many of them really took it to heart,” she said. “Many seemed to think that since the lawn was green, we couldn’t possibly have a drought. Additionally, I remember hearing several students at various times mention [the drought] was over after the first time it rained during the school year.”
Wysocki agreed, saying Cornell and Ithaca could be doing more to conserve water. He called the drought a “wake-up call for the community” and expressed his hope that it will motivate people to save water even during times of surplus.
“We’ve been lazy about water conservation,” he said.
Wysocki stressed the importance of altering everyday activities to conserve water, including using rain barrels to collect rainwater, drinking less tap water and turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth.
Wysocki also suggested that water restrictions be automatically implemented when Ithaca experiences a dry period to prevent escalation into an extreme drought.
Impact on Ithaca Farmers
Examining the drought’s effects on the larger Ithaca area, Jessica Spaccio, a climatologist at the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the Northeast Regional Climate Center, said areas hit hard by the drought have seen serious consequences for agriculture.
“Corn was much shorter than usual — some fields had to be used for silage [grass stored to feed livestock over the winter] because the yields were so low,” she said. “Hay yields were also down. Many dairy farmers grow their own feed and will need to buy feed for their cows.”
Many farmers lack irrigation systems because of the rarity of droughts in the northeast, according to Spaccio. Some work together to purchase feed from other areas of the state, but others have sold livestock to compensate for their losses.
The government has been offering assistance in the form of low-interest loans, Spaccio added.
According to Wysocki, the recent rain has helped to alleviate the drought in Ithaca, but water levels in Fall Creek and Six Mile Creek are still below where they were in January and February. Also, because the precipitation occurred over such a brief period of time, groundwater levels remain low.
“Some of the rain will help raise streamflow values of smaller streams and creeks to a higher level,” Wysocki said. “But people who depend on well water will have to wait for any benefits, as it will take some time for the water to work its way into the local groundwater table.”