Speaking about recent drought-like conditions, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine advised residents to alter their water usage times. Credit: John Roca

The entire South Shore of Long Island has been upgraded to severe drought status by national officials after summer rainfall in the region was half of what is considered normal. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor, part of the federal government, in its latest national map released Thursday upgraded the South Shore in both Nassau and Suffolk from its previous ranking of moderate drought level.

"Despite a few small areas of moderate rain, most of the dry areas in the Northeast region saw little or no precipitation," the agency said in its latest online report.

Most of the northern half of Long Island remains at moderate drought level, according to the monitor. That’s because the North Shore got more rain that the South Shore, even though both are well below normal levels, said Richard Heim, of the monitoring office.

        WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island’s entire South Shore was upgraded to severe drought status by federal authorities as rainfall this summer is half of normal levels.
  • Suffolk County and Brookhaven Town officials pleaded with people not to water their lawns from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. since it is stressing the water system.
  • Officials said fire fighters may not have enough pressure in hydrants to extinguish blazes if high water usage continues during those hours.

The situation is partly attributable to climate change, he said, with extreme weather becoming more common. Officials said they expect about another month of warm weather and heavy water use before cooler temperatures — or more rain — potentially help ease the crisis. 

Officials in Brookhaven Town and the Suffolk County Water Authority on Thursday pleaded with residents to stop watering their lawns from 3 to 9 a.m., when irrigation usage is highest, to try to head off a crisis with water pressure being too low for firefighters to do their job.

“Drought conditions are serious. They are threatening all of us,” Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine said at a news conference in front of a water tower in Center Moriches that officials estimated had been drained of 80% of its water that morning.

He and Jeff Szabo, CEO of the Suffolk County Water Authority, said residents need to take action to head off more severe consequences.

“The number one thing residents can do right now is water their lawns less often and stop watering completely” during the late night and early morning, Szabo said.

Officials said Suffolk County has enough water in its aquifer. The problem is that its pumping system to get water from wells and towers to homes and businesses — and fire hydrants — is being overtaxed as people try to keep their lawns green.

“People can have green lawns. Just change the time of the clocks” on the irrigation systems, Szabo said. “When everyone is watering at the same time, the system is maxed.”

Officials have already declared a Stage 1 Water Emergency Alert in the towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Southold and Shelter Island. Residents there must stop all irrigation between midnight and 7 a.m., refrain from nonessential water usage, reduce shower times and take other water-saving measures indoors. 

The water alert has not yet been extended to Brookhaven Town, but Romaine said it might be. He and other officials warned that the low water levels in the early morning could hinder firefighters in extinguishing a structural fire or one in the woods including the pine barrens.

Nassau County’s sprinkler ordinance prohibits the irrigation of residential and commercial properties between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. while following an odd/even split for which days they can water their lawns.

Kevin Reilly, superintendent of the Massapequa Water District, said despite the expanded drought warnings, no changes are anticipated.

“We're concerned about [the drought] and we're pumping a lot of water,” Reilly said. “We're cognizant of what's going on in the area. And we're just trying to reach out to our customers and make them aware.”

Officials have identified some especially heavy users of water on the East End, and are working with them to try to reduce their usage or at least shift their irrigation times, Szabo said.

Officials have gotten some cooperation, but need more, he said. “We’re making some progress … but it’s not enough.”

Levying fines against users who are not complying with the authority’s requests is being considered, Szabo said, though at $250 each that might not sway wealthy homeowners. He did not comment on whether the authority is considering restricting access to water for people who are abusing the system.

National Weather Service meteorologists said rain is at very low levels on Long Island this summer — with little immediate relief coming.

The amount of rain at Islip between June 1 and Aug. 17 was 4.57 inches — about half the average amount of 9.66 inches, said meteorologist Dominic Ramunni of the weather service’s Upton office. It is the fifth driest summer in the region since 1984 and the seventh driest since 1964 when records started to be kept at Islip, he said.

“Unfortunately we’re not expecting any significant rainfall in the next several days that would change those conditions,” he said.

Luckily, “the winds haven’t been too strong lately,” he added. “Otherwise, we may be dealing with more of an elevated fire spread risk … If we get a stretch of really dry days here with a gusty wind, we’re going to be having some issues.”

Paul Granger, superintendent of the Hicksville Water District, said the odd/even conservation ordinance in Nassau has been in place for more than 30 years and has negated the need for Nassau water districts to impose other irrigation restrictions.

“It shaves the peak demand and pumpage,” Granger said. “By virtue of that we’re really splitting the irrigation load in half in theory.”

Enforcement of the ordinance, he said, is conducted by local police although most residents who violate it will receive only a warning.

“So we find that educating the customer works 99% of the time,” said Granger, who is not planning on imposing additional restrictions for Hicksville residents.

Christopher Mehrman, Town of Brookhaven chief fire marshal, urged residents to avoid doing backyard fires in firepits — and to definitely avoid them in woods. “We don’t want fires to spread,” he said. “During these drought conditions a brushfire or a wildfire is very easy to start and it spreads very quickly during these conditions.”

Heim, of the drought monitoring office, said that people can expect not only more drought spells like the current one, but other extreme weather like intense rainfalls and floods — largely because of climate change.

“The bottom line is we are going to have more occurrences of extreme weather, and that’s on both ends of the scale,” he said.

“It’s going to be messy.”

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