Signs of Northeast Drought: Pricey Pumpkins, Salty Water

IT got so dry in Mill Creek, W.Va., a couple weeks ago, they closed the schools for a day to save the water. When students came back, they had to cut their water use in half. School lunches are now served on paper plates to eliminate dishwashing. The football team has been told to go home to clean up; school showers are closed.

So when rain fell this week on northeastern West Virginia, officials cheered. But they didn't alter their long-term outlook. ''We felt a little bit like Noah,'' says Larry Prichard, the county school superintendent here. It will take many days of rain to put things right again.

Rain in many parts of the Northeast this week has kept a widespread drought from getting worse. But state and local officials are not counting on more rain.

On Wednesday, New York announced a drought warning for New York City, Westchester County, and the Catskills - areas that up to now had only been on a drought watch. While such measures mean voluntary cutbacks, New Jersey the same day moved to outright bans on some uses of water. The state announced that residents in more than 100 northeast New Jersey municipalities can no longer water lawns or wash their cars.

Temporary, but necessary

Although voluntary reductions have saved millions of gallons of water in the past few weeks, ''these temporary restrictions ... are necessary to assure adequate safe-water supplies,'' New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) said.

Although it was August's dry spell - the Northeast's driest on record - that brought it to public attention, the drought has been building for nearly a year. The US Geological Survey reports below-average stream flows in all of Maine, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The same is true for almost all of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and about half of New York, Virginia, and Connecticut.

Federal officials in the Susquehanna River Basin, which stretches from New York to Maryland, have directed eight companies, including three nuclear plants, to either quit drawing water from the river or replace it by buying water from a reservoir upriver.

''In the basin, nine of the past 11 months have had below-normal precipitation,'' says Susan Martino of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, a federal agency. ''We would need lots of rain to get out of this drought.''

Old man river turns salty

Water shortages are affecting everything from electric utilities to agriculture. Of particular concern are municipal water systems. The water flow of the Hudson River has been so reduced in recent weeks that salty ocean water is moving upriver. During high tide, this ''salt front'' reaches the drinking-water intake for Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Authorities are trying to push back the salty water with releases from an upriver lake.

Wells on Long Island are at their lowest levels in the 60 years that records have been kept. In northeast New Jersey, the combined reservoir capacity stands at only 58.7 percent, far below the average 77.7 percent typical for this time of year.

The dryness has also taken its toll on the region's farmers, says Jan Carson, news director for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. In some parts of Massachusetts, the price of pumpkins has risen 40 percent. Pennsylvania apple growers will probably have a full crop but of smaller-than-average apples. Many dairy farmers who usually raise hay and corn to feed their herd have had to buy feed, cutting into already thin profit margins.

But no one has given up hope here in Elkins, especially after the steady drizzle that fell Wednesday.

''Oh gosh, for 31 days we didn't know what [rain] was,'' Mr. Prichard says. A local radio DJ was so thrilled, he vowed to run outside just to feel it on his face.

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