North's water picture: more rain, but not enough

Better, but not good -- that's how government officials and hydrologists with the National Weather Service interpret the still low, but improving, water supplies in the Northeast and the Midwest.

"The situation is much better than it was a couple of months ago," says Clifford Ross of the New Jersey Water Resources Department. "But we're still in trouble. Our reservoirs are at about 66 percent of capacity; we should be at 95 percent capacity at this time as we head toward the summer months."

Consumers, apparently heeding many mandatory and voluntary water conservation restrictions, have played a key role in the improving water picture.

But while a wetter than normal February brought some urgently needed rain to the Northeast, March was a poor rain month and forecasters are divided over what can be expected from April showers.

Roland Loffiedo, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, says "the outlook for April participation east of the Mississippi is for above-normal rainfall." and, he adds, although April should bring continued relief from the drought in most of the Northeast and Midwest, "there will remain pockets, especially in the Midwest, where the situation will still be very serious."

For example, he notes, "The drought situation in southeastern Kansas, southwestern Missouri, northwestern Arkansas, and northeastern Oklahoma is extremely serious," with few signs pointing toward improvement.

Unlike the Northeast, where potable drinking water is the chief concern, drought in the Midwest also threatens to reduce crop yields and cattle herds. Besides inadequate rainfall, low winter snowfall is being blamed for much lower than normal river and reservoir levels in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, New England drought conditions are generally much improved from January, reports the New England River Basins Commission (NERBC).

"But we still do have a drought and we have to have an awful lot of rain between now and July to really bring relief," says NERBC spokeswoman Francis King emphatically. "People must not be misled by seeing a little rain fall in their backyards.

Likewise, in the 13,000 square miles of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware that take drinking water from the delaware River, drought conditions are said to be somewhat improved.

"We're in a lot better shape than we would have been if we had not had the exceptionally wet February," says Delaware River Basins Commission spokesman Dawes Thompson. "But we've just finished the driest March on record, and our reservoirs are not increasing at a time they ought to be increasing."

Meanwhile, conservation measures are said to have exceeded official goals in some parts of the drought-stricken region.

In New York City, which last week entered "Phase 2" of its own emergency drought contingency planning,water use has been cut to 1.23 billion gallons a day, surpassing Mayor Edward I. Koch's target of 1.25 billion gallons.

"We're extremely happy with New Yorkers' conservation efforts," says John Cunningham of the city's Environmental Protection Department.

Phase 2 includes a ban on using water for swimming pools -- a measure that could prove to be a political powder keg for the mayor this summer if the rule is still in effect. Most city officials, however, are hoping that conditions will improve significantly by May, when the pool's are normally due to open.

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