As Long Island copes with a drought watch and the Suffolk County Water Authority prepares to expand its water emergency for three East End towns, experts warn it's largely a coin flip whether August will finally bring a substantial increase in rain to the region.
While no mandatory restrictions are yet in place, local water providers are urging residents to practice conservation during the unusually hot summer, reducing or limiting their irrigation to ensure that enough water is available for essential services such as firefighting.
Pat Halpin, chairman of Suffolk's Water Authority, said the situation is particularly dire in Southampton Village, where one critical water tank has been on the brink of going dry during the midnight to 7 a.m. period when most homeowners water their lawns.
"This situation is really much worse than people realize," said Halpin, a former Suffolk County executive. "God forbid that there is a serious fire. People could die because there's a high probability there'll be no water pressure and therefore no water for the firefighters to fight the fire."
WHAT TO KNOW
- A drought watch has been issued for all of Long Island, along with 20 other counties in New York state.
- Last month was among the driest and hottest July on record in Long Island with less than half of the typical amount of rain seen during that period
- The Suffolk County Water Authority is asking residents of three East End towns to no longer water their lawns between midnight and 7 a.m. to preserve water for emergencies, including firefighting.
Let it rain
The 22 New York counties — including Nassau and Suffolk — currently under a state-issued drought watch are not alone.
Nearly half of the country is currently facing even more serious drought conditions, with the most dire situation in the Southern Plains, as well as Missouri, Arkansas, western Kentucky and Tennessee, according to the federally-run National Integrated Drought Information System.
The U.S. Drought Monitor has declared an abnormally dry to moderate drought across all of Long Island, New York City, most of the Lower Hudson River Valley and northeast New Jersey.
A drought watch — the lowest of the four levels of state drought advisories, followed by a warning, emergency, and disaster — is issued based on precipitation, stream flow and reservoir, lake and groundwater levels across the state.
Long Island was last in drought watch from July 2020 to September 2021.
The Department of Environmental Conservation said the dry weather began in the spring and has now brought stream flows and groundwater levels below normal across much of the affected regions.
DEC officials declined to forecast the length of a drought watch or warning, citing changing weather conditions.
And if it felt like July on Long Island was hotter — and drier — than previous years, it surely was, statistics show.
Last month brought a total of 1.27 inches in Islip — the 11th driest July since 1964, according to James Connolly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Upton. That total is two inches less than the average of 3.26 inches of rain normally seen in July and well short of the 5.12 inches that fell in 2021, he said.
Meanwhile, July's average temperature of 77.1 degrees Fahrenheit was the eighth warmest in the region in the past 58 years and more than two degrees hotter than the 75-degree average Islip typically sees in July, Connolly said. High heat not only drives water use but also contributes to quicker evaporation.
And the five 90-plus temperature days on Long Island last month were tied for the 13th most since 1964, according to Weather Service data.
While the weekend forecast calls for the possibility of rain, along with much of early next week, it might not be enough to end the drought watch.
"As far as drought-busting conditions, we don't have a strong signal that will occur anytime soon," Connolly said.
Long Island sits over aquifers containing an estimated 90 trillion gallons of fresh water — a vast but not inexhaustible store, with a delivery system of pipes and wells that can strain under times of peak demand.
“The limiting factor on Long Island is the number of wells to pump [water] out,” said Dennis Kelleher, chairman of Long Island Water Conference’s public relations committee and executive vice president of H2M in Melville.
Long Island “started to trend into the abnormally dry category” about two weeks ago, said Kevin Reed, an associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, citing an official metric, published by the U.S. Drought Monitor, based on data including rainfall, soil moisture and streamflow.
The region may sit atop massive aquifers, but “nothing’s endless,” said Reed, noting that Long Island was even drier in 2017.
Port Washington Water District Commissioner Mindy Germain said the drought watch is a function of a slow-rolling crisis and a sign of things to come.
“Long Island is dealing with a trifecta” of climate change, saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers and reduced capacity because of emerging contaminants, she said. The only solution is “community acceptance that our drinking water is threatened by overuse, and the citizenry taking steps to curb waste.”
The district has zeroed in on outdoor water use, which she said accounts for half of water waste, including offering rebates on smart sprinkler programs, staggered watering times in five geographic zones and encouraging homeowners to landscape more sustainably, using native plants that require less watering. A recent garden tour drew more than 100 registrants, she said.
'Do the right thing'
On Tuesday, the Suffolk Water Authority will hold a news conference with local first responders asking residents of Southampton, East Hampton and Southold — home to the county's largest water users — to no longer water their lawns between midnight and 7 a.m. when the systems are stressed and elevated water storage tanks are working to full capacity. Residents are also asked to not water their lawns more than every other day and to eliminate nonessential water use.
Most homeowners water their lawns during overnight and early morning hours, leaving little water available for firefighting or other emergency services such as hospitals, said Jeffrey Szabo, chief executive of the water authority, which has 1.2 million customers.
"We'll have SCWA employees out in the field reading meters to ensure that people are complying," said Szabo. "We want to stress the significance of it."
Nassau County’s sprinkler ordinance prohibits the irrigation of residential and commercial properties between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
During a similar heat wave in 2010, when water use reached an all-time high, water districts from across the Island asked customers to completely refrain from watering lawns and washing vehicles.
A run of hot summer days like the one Long Island recently experienced can strain the system, largely due to lawn care, Kelleher said.
“On those hot summer days," he said. "90 percent of the water we’re pumping is going to irrigation.”
For now, the irrigation recommendation is not mandatory. The Water Authority has the ability to impose $250 fines per violation although Halpin concedes the amount is unlikely to curtail the behavior of multimillionaire East End homeowners.
"I have to believe that people will do the right thing," said Halpin, who urged homeowners to monitor the water use of their neighbors and to report violations to the water authority. "They'll do the right thing if they understand what's at stake, which is health and safety."
With Vera Chinese