Reservoirs are registering record lows in the normally rain-soaked East
Boston — Call it drought. Whenever it is November in the East, streams are usually running with autumn rains and reservoirs are full. But like a millionaire beset by stock market losses, much of the normally rain-riched northeast coast is suffering from a lack of drinking water.
The water flow in most of northern New England is normal for this time of year, according to the natioanl Geological Survey. But a slice of the Eastern seaboard from southeast massachusetts to tidewater Virginia is experiencing its driest year since 1965.
The National Weather Service monitoring station in Boston reports rainfall for the year is running at 60-70 percent of normal -- and that the condition persists through coastal Rhode Island.
In Norwalk, Conn., two of the town's reservoirs hold nothing but puddles. There is a 90-day supply of drinking water -- the lowest level in 15 years.
The Delaware River Basin Commission, which regulates the water supply of 22 million people in the New york-New Jersey area, has cut its New York City allocation from 800 million to 680 million gallons a day.
Water rationing has been imposed on 114 communities in northern New Jersey. And in the flatlands of Virginia, the citizens of Norfolk County are asked to cut water consumption 25 percent, or pay dearly.
The East's problem stems from too much good weather.
"We didn't have a wet winter," says Pat Walker, acting director of the New England office of the National Geological Survey. "Groundwater wasn't recharged."
Blue skies persisted into summer, pleasing sunbathers but disrupting the region's normal weather cycle.
"From nov. 1, 1979, to Oct. 1 of this year we only had 34.46 inches of rain," says Robert Skilling, observer in charge at the National Weather Service's Boston area station. "Normally is 46.8. It's the driest we've been since 1965 ."
The result is drought in a region normally sopping as a bath sponge. "The problem does seem to be quite Eastern Seaboardish," says John Rattie, WAtere Resources Engineer at the Delaware River Basin Commission.
While the drought of the early 1960s built up over several years, the current shortage appeared suddenly say experts, catching town utility departments with their water levels down. the hardest hit have instituted mandatory cutbacks.
The town of Norwalk, Conn., has levied a ban on nonessential water use such as car washing and water sprinkling. William Lahey, chief operator of the water district filter plant, says the measure allows the town to survive on well-water supplies, which are holding up. but he estimates it would take five-to-seven inches of rain to refill the town's empty reservoirs.
On Sept. 27, Gov. Brendan T. Byrne ordered all residents and isntitutions in 114 northern. New Jersey communities to cut their water use 25 percent. Families are limited to 50 gallons per person per month; single-member households get 65 gallons. Officials are stressing voluntary compliance, but violators can be fined up to $175 and imprisoned for a year.
"the 25 percent is almost within reach in some areas," says Clifford Ross, director of Water Resources. He claims more densely populated regions such as Essex County are doing well, but admits that in more rural areas the savings have been substantially lower.
Two emergencies pipelines are also being built to bring water from other parts of the state.
Normally at this time of year, the reservoirs of Virginia's Norfold Country are 85-90 percent full. Currently they are 50 percent full. To ease the situation, norfolk has also instituted a 25 percent mandatory cutback. Residents who use more will pay the price: The cost of water will go from 92 cents per thousand gallons to $13.33 per thousand if they don't conserve.
John Kemper, county director of utilities, says conservation has been wildly successful. "Consumption has been cut from 84 million gallons to 48 million gallons per month," he claims. But he also says it would take 10 to 15 inches of rain to fill up dangerously low reservoirs.
Even New York City is feeling the pinch, with water supples about two-thirds of normal. Currently the city is on "drought watch," and officials are likely to announce a "drought warning" later this week.
Two inches of rain last week helped ease the situation. But much more is needed.
"People are just hoping for a good soaking rain before the ground freezes," says Michael DiGiano of the New England River Basins Commission.
"We need 15 inches to bring our reservoirs up to normal," says John Rattie of the Delaware River Basins Commission. "but that's a normal three-month total. That's impossible. Where are you going to get that fast?"