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Northeast US Continues to Suffer Drought - 2002-03-27

A severe drought has hit the northeastern United States, where several cities and states have declared water emergencies. The nation's largest city will put new restrictions on water use into effect next week.

A recent downpour has done little to shrink the large dry, sandy patches that protrude around New York's reservoirs in areas usually covered with water.

During this second drought year, the worst in a decade, a pattern of little rain and snow is depleting New York's water supply.

Officials say the reservoirs are nearly 50 percent below capacity at a time of year when they should be 90 percent full.

This week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened a group of reporters at a local water facility to declare a so-called "stage one" drought emergency. The declaration, which follows a drought warning in January, brings with it restrictions on water usage for the City's eight million residents and one million people living in nearby suburbs.

"The likelihood, even if we have a lot of rain, is that we will still have our reservoirs at a dangerously low level," the mayor said. "We urge everybody to please conserve as much as you possibly can."

Starting Monday, New Yorkers will no longer be permitted to wash private cars, sidewalks and driveways, or turn on decorative fountains. The City is also limiting the times when lawns can be watered and is requiring businesses to cut water usage by 15 percent. Violators of the temporary ban will be fined.

Officials say there is a 10-month supply of water in reserve in New York. But if the situation does not improve, a second stage of the drought emergency will be declared, with a ban on filling swimming pools and an additional cut for businesses.

The drought is also taking its toll on counties and states bordering New York City.

The neighboring state of New Jersey is experiencing the driest six-month period since the year 1895. The impact is visible on shrinking reservoirs and wells, and low-flowing rivers and streams.

New Jersey State Climatologist David Robinson says New Jersey is at the center of the drought.

"Winter storm systems have not been particularly abundant," he said. "And they have not been very wet when they arrived here. Last year's thunderstorm season during the summer, sure we had some thunderstorms, but they were not particularly plentiful. And then we also rely on some tropical moisture. So all of those mechanisms, if you will, failed to some degree. Why they all did so, we do not know."

Professor Robinson, who also heads the geography department of Rutgers University, says experts do know that the failure of the polar jet stream to collide with sub-tropical air to the south prevented the formation of potent storms.

But he says that pattern has not been consistent. Although last year was the driest calendar year in New Jersey since 1965, 1996 was the wettest year of the past century.

"The last five years have been generally on the dry side," he said. "However, it was proceeded by three of the wettest decades of the 20th century, the 1970s, 1980s and the bulk of the 1990s. I think what it is telling us is that our hydrologic system, our rainfall in particular, is extremely variable."

It is impossible to make long-term predictions on the weather pattern. But Professor Robinson says it is unlikely that enough rain will fall before the hot summer months to replenish the region's reservoirs.

"Unfortunately, we do not have enough time to fill them adequately before the summer begins," he said. "It would take a deluge of water of almost unprecedented nature. We need half again normal precipitation for the next three months. That is not likely to happen."

April and May are often the wettest months on the East Coast. But given the current depletion of water supplies, residents and businesses will probably remain on alert to monitor water usage for the rest of the year.