Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Officials urge Cornellians to conserve water after a prolonged period without rain, which could potentially hurt Fall Creek, Cornell's water supply.

September 24, 2020

Wary of Drought, Ithaca and Cornell Announce Water Use Advisory

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After a “prolonged period” without rain and an “abnormally dry state,” Cornell and the City of Ithaca have issued a Level 1: Limited Water Use Advisory to encourage water conservation.

For the past two months, water flow in Six Mile Creek, Ithaca’s water source, has decreased to around a third of its normal level, leading the city to call it a “moderate drought.”

Typically, Six Mile Creek’s water flow is strong enough that water from the reservoir brims over the dam without being collected for human use, according to Scott Gibson, acting stormwater management officer for the City of Ithaca.

As of now, the city is drawing as much water as is flowing. A flow rate below 4 cubic feet per second is considered “critical” because the city will begin to draw more water than the creek can supply — Six Mile Creek currently flows at approximately 5 cubic feet per second.

Similarly, Cornell’s water supply, Fall Creek, is at a concerningly low level.

According to Gibson, the Bolton Point water facility, which uses water from Cayuga Lake and provides water to surrounding localities, can be connected to the city’s and Cornell’s water systems in case of emergency.

There is no rain forecasted for the next seven days, according to a text alert from the city. If conditions persist, the city and Cornell could issue an elevated warning, though limiting the use of water to essential needs only should ease the demands on the water systems.

The city issued a Level 2 restriction in 2016, which required the halting of irrigation, car washes and fire department training.

At the Level 1 water restriction, the city’s suggestions for voluntary conservation include limiting or ceasing non-essential uses of potable water, like watering lawns, washing vehicles and letting faucets run unattended. Residents can also wait until having a full load before running washing machines or dishwashers.

“We’re going to get through this —  it’s low but it’s nothing dire,” said Chris Bordelmay, Cornell water manager, expressing confidence that rain will be plentiful in October, as they have been in recent years.

Gibson, too, was optimistic. “We’ve never ever gone dry and we don’t anticipate that we’re going to see that any time soon,” Gibson said. “We’re not really in panic mode.”

The University and the city maintain that health and safety are still a priority and that people should continue to wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

On campus, residents should report all water leakages, including running toilets and leaking faucets, as soon as possible to conserve water.

Although there have been several droughts in recent years, Fall Creek’s lowest recorded flow was in 1999, according to Bordlemay. Since the most recent significant drought, in 2016, connections between the area’s three water supplies have been made more robust, Bordlemay said.

“We built a $1.5 million interconnection between Bolton point and Cornell that I can control from home if need be,” Bordlemay said, adding that the water flow rates are currently monitored by computers at all times. “Now we can more easily back each other up.”