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Frequent pop-up drought events could become common in New York

Twenty-one counties in New York are under a drought watch, which could become the norm as climate change heats up the planet.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, a drought watch is the least severe on the drought monitoring scale. For now, public water suppliers start conserving water and urge people to reduce their water use.

The National Integrated Drought Information System classifies this as a moderate drought. Sylvia Reeves, the system’s Northeast regional drought information coordinator, said these “pop-up droughts” have been typical in the last two years, in the entire Northeast.

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“We’ve seen more frequent drought events that have lasted anywhere from six months to a little over a year,” she said. “And, those events typically have come on in what we call a ‘flashy’ form – rapid onset of drought conditions and rapid intensification.”

Reeves added that if several different indicators of groundwater, surface water and wells don’t change, drought conditions could be upgraded to “severe.” That’s what New York faced in summer and mid-fall 2020. These conditions aren’t generally bad enough to cause wildfires, but grass and brush fires could be forces to contend with.

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During droughts, it isn’t just about needing water for small things such as brushing your teeth or doing laundry. It’s about making sure vital crops are irrigated thoroughly and having a decent supply of groundwater.

As weather gets more extreme, droughts could be more prolonged, said Alison Branco, director of climate adaptation for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island.

“What we’re going to see is, not a huge change in the overall amount of rain we receive – a little increase, but not a ton,” she said. “But it’s going to come in less frequent, more severe bursts; like big heavy storms and not so much like that slow, steady rain.”

She added that there could be periods of drought between rain events, but groundwater sources won’t be able to replenish as quickly. Branco, a Long Island resident, said she feels the infrastructure to pump groundwater isn’t equipped to meet the high demands a drought would create. However, she said, New York is not at risk of the kinds of lengthy droughts seen in California and other Western states.



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