First the flood, now a drought


By Jim Poole

Schoharie County and surrounding areas are nearing drought conditions after a month of hot, nearly rainless weather.
And even after the weekend rainfall--literally, a drop in the bucket--farmers and homeowners are beginning to suffer.
"There's not a lot of rain in the forecast to put a dent in what we're seeing," said Raymond O'Keefe, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Albany.
"It's abnormally dry. . .on the way to drought."
The area's had four inches less precipitation this year than last, Mr. O'Keefe said, though much of the shortfall is in recent weeks.
Since June 1--when NWS marks the start of the summer season--rainfall is 60 percent below normal, Mr. O'Keefe said.
In the previous six weeks before the slight rain this weekend, the area received less than an inch of rain.
Compounding the lack of rainfall is the heat, which increases evaporation and dries out the ground for crops and grass.
"It's terrible dry out there," said Richard Ball of Schoharie Valley Farms, adding that he's more worried about the effect on later crops than the ones being harvested now.
"The wind, the heat and the length of the day are just whipping that water right out of the ground."
Brenda Weaver of the Soil and Water Conservation District said she's had calls from two dairy farmers who need water pumped for their cows.
She's hoping to put together the county's Drought Task Force this week. The task force includes county Emergency Management, Health Department, Fire Coordinator and other agencies.
The task force is mainly aimed at helping farmers get water, said Fire Coordinator Matt Brisley, who also said the task force hasn't been needed since 2001.
But aside from farms that may be hurting, there's the danger of fire. Dry conditions fostered several brush fires in recent weeks.
"It's a really high fire danger," Mr. Brisley said. "People who are camping really have to be careful. If you don't have a fire pit, leaves and brush can be like a tinderbox."
Pointing to that danger, Governor Andrew Cuomo instituted a statewide burn ban earlier this week, and there's a county burn ban as well, according to Kevin Neary of the Emergency Management Office.
"We have a concern because the extended forecast doesn't show much rain," Mr. Neary said. "Out west, it's really critical. . ."
Mr. O'Keefe noted that although conditions are severe, they seem more so because the last few years were wet.
"That was unusual to some degree," Mr. O'Keefe said. "And this past winter we had little snow and a lack of precipitation.
"This is unusual compared to recent years. Is it rare compared to normal? Yes. Unprecedented? No."
Most municipal water supplies appear sufficient. Dale Nunamann, Middleburgh's superintendent of Public Works and Cobleskill Water Superintendent Jeff Pangman both said their supplies are fine.
"We're at 90 percent capacity," Mr. Pangman said. "Really, the draw is just starting. We're in good shape here."
In Sharon Springs, however, the village will not be flushing hydrants this week. Also, a notice asks residents to "do their best to conserve water and avoid watering lawns and non-food producing plants."
Homeowners with wells and farmers are in a similar fix.
The weekend rain offered slight relief. Storms were spotty; recordings ranged from 1.26 inches in Sharon Springs to .22 in Richmondville, according to Steve DiRienzo of the National Weather Service.
Most places in Schoharie County received between a half inch and an inch, and "that's very little," Mr. DiRienzo said.
"The trees, grass and crops drink that up right away."
The area needs about five inches of rain per month in the summer, he said, and midweek rain isn't likely to help much.
"We could use three to five inches of rain over a couple of weeks," Mr. DiRienzo said. "We haven't had much, and we need more."