Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Fall creek, which supplies much of Cornell University's water went unused for much of the spring before experiencing extremely low flow.

October 26, 2020

Second Ithaca Drought in Five Years Threatens Water Supply and Local Ecosystem

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Climate change is driving the development of drought patterns in New York, threatening the agricultural sector and drying up local water sources — including Ithaca.

Last month, the water supply in Six Mile Creek was at a third of its average flow rate: an alarming five cubic feet per second as opposed to its standard rate of 15 cubic feet per second. The low flow rate prompted Cornell and the City of Ithaca to issue a Level 1: Limited Water Use Advisory to encourage more water conservation on Sept. 22. The advisory was only lifted on Oct. 21.

This is the second time in less than five years that Ithaca has experienced a drought. According to the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, the 2016 drought caused a majority of unirrigated rain-fed crops in New York to experience crop failures.

“Drought is how far we are from our normal amount of rainfall relative to what the ecosystem has evolved to need,” said Prof. M. Todd Walter, biological and environmental engineering.

This shift in water supply can be severely detrimental — it would take only a year of continuous drought conditions in Ithaca for many species in the current ecosystem to either adapt or die off and be replaced with more drought-tolerant species.

“We are very sensitive to short-term drought because our soil is shallow, and our plants have a small reservoir of water to draw from,” Walter said.

Fall Creek is at half its average water level, further exacerbated by the University’s lack of a water reservoir or other water storage methods.

Cayuga Lake, as seen from Stewart Park, in 2017.

Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

Cayuga Lake, as seen from Stewart Park, in 2017.

“Another challenge we face here is this cyclical movement of people,” said Harman Singh Dhodi, grad, who studies urban water systems. “[Students] move in during the semester and [then leave].”

The oscillating demand for water, which mirrors student residential periods, shapes the University’s water management systems. Last semester — when students were suddenly asked to leave campus — there was an excess of water, but the University took no proactive measures to use the water, Dhodi said.

The University could not direct its water toward the city’s needs because of the distinct systems that are employed by Ithaca and Cornell. This caused Ithaca’s water system to deplete while the University’s supply sat idle, according to Dhodi.

On the other hand, Dhodi said that water recycling and reuse are not employed enough, and advocates for tackling the stigma against using chemically and biologically treated wastewater that is otherwise ejected into Cayuga Lake.

“Because of water supply reducing naturally due to global warming and climate change, [time has come] to use our water more judiciously and efficiently,” Dhodi said. “Why is this not a common practice? It’s because everyone thinks we have plenty of water, we have the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes, it’s a psychological thing.”

The droughts in Ithaca represent a larger pattern across New York State as it increasingly experiences arid conditions due to climate change.

“The biggest issue is communication and human behavior. People are struggling with the timescale of climate change,” said Prof. Edwin Cowen, civil and environmental engineering, and director of the DeFrees Hydraulics lab. “COVID-19 demonstrates the challenges we face with climate change. How can people worry about long-term consequences when they can’t get food on the table for their kids?”

Increased climate variance has major consequences on New York’s ecosystems and the likelihood of future droughts in Ithaca.

“I wouldn’t be shocked before I die to hear that the Adirondacks and Catskills [are burning],” Cowen said.