7 WNY counties now on ‘drought watch;’ what it means to gardeners

graphic for drought watch
Wyoming County is still at normal water levels, but the rest of Western New York is at the “drought watch” level, indicated here in yellow. The other levels are “warning,” “emergency” and “disaster”. Graphic by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Cattaraugus and Allegany counties were recently added to the list of counties on drought watch, joining these five counties already on the list: Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Orleans and Genesee. Wyoming County still has normal water conditions, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

A “watch” is the first of four levels of state drought advisories: “watch,” “warning,” “emergency” and “disaster.”

See a map of current drought conditions here.

Understanding drought watch

A drought watch condition doesn’t mean we are necessarily headed for a severe drought. The drought watch is intended to raise awareness of current dry conditions and the potential for water levels to get worse, according to the DEC.

Since spring, dry conditions have been documented in most of New York State.

Groundwater levels in Western New York are low and trending lower, according to the DEC. This summer’s deficit is still affecting the groundwater levels because there is a time lag between when precipitation hits the ground and when it seeps down to the groundwater. We need more rain in order for groundwater levels to recover.

Many streams saw extremely low streamflows, especially smaller ones with less groundwater contribution. The Alleghany and Genesee Rivers, which have tributaries in Western New York, were briefly at record daily lows at the end of September but have recovered. Canacadea Creek in Allegany County is still quite low for this time of year.

An exception is Lake Erie, which still has high water levels. Lake Erie levels earlier in the year led to high Niagara River flows, which are still above normal. Lake Erie levels have been dropping over the past few months, but are still well above the historical average for the month of October.

What gardeners can do

Don’t waste water.

“We can all do our part to conserve water now by taking simple steps,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “Minor changes in your everyday routine can go a long way in helping prevent increased drought levels.”     

Here are some ways for gardeners to conserve water:

  • Use a rain barrel. It’s an excellent way to help reduce the increased summer demand on your water supplier and reduce your water bill, too.
  • Sweep sidewalks and steps rather than hosing them. Eliminating a weekly, five-minute pavement hose-down could save between 625 and 2,500 gallons of water per year depending on the flow rate.
  • Use mulch around shrubs and garden plants to save soil moisture. Apply organic mulches four inches deep to keep plant roots cool, prevent soil crusting, minimize evaporation and reduce weed growth.
  • Fix dripping and leaking faucets. A faucet leaking 30 drops per minute wastes 54 gallons a month. Check faucets outside and inside, too.
  • Raise lawn mower cutting height. Longer grass needs less water.
  • If you want to water lawns, do it on alternate days instead of every day. Less frequent watering will develop grass with deeper roots.
  • When using automatic lawn watering systems, override the system in wet weather or use a rain gauge to control when and how much water to use. A fixed watering schedule wastes water. Irrigate only when needed.

See more water saving tips here.

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