Drought Takes Its Toll

Posted July 19, 2016. See August 18 and September 1 updates below.

From sweet corn to apples, root crops to pumpkins. The drought in much of New York is taking its toll.

NY precip june to july 17The dry spring follows a record warm winter, not only for New York (NRCC) but for the contiguous 48 states as a whole (NOAA). Warm temperatures and somewhat below average precipitation in western New York throughout the winter resulted in a minimal snowpack.

April was unusually cold, and may have felt wetter, but rainfall was still below average throughout the western New York region.

For the rest of March through June, temperatures in central and western New York have been normal while rainfall has been only about 50% of normal.

In July, temperatures have risen to be above normal, dry winds have blown, and the rainfall remains meager.  As of July 17 substantial portions of western and central NY had only received between 1 and 2” total rainfall in the last 6 weeks (map right).  Twenty-three percent of the state was in Severe Drought (US Drought Monitor), and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation issued its first statewide drought watch in 14 years.

Update July 21, 2016: A week later the severe drought area in western New York grew considerably. (Map below.)

drought monitor map for new york
U.S. Drought Monitor map for New York for July 19. View latest map.

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This has resulted in hot, dry soils and, in many areas, record low stream flows for this time of year!

The map below shows normal 28-day average streamflow compared to historical streamflow for the day of the year (retrieved July 13, 2016). View the most recent interactive map at USGS website.

streamflow map

There is no unique climate change signature to this drought.  It is largely an unlucky sequence of events that this particular region has been missed by a variety of weather systems bringing rain to the North, South and East of the affected area at different times.  Nonetheless, for all droughts in a world setting with successively higher global temperature records year after year, high temperature increases evaporation rates and thus exacerbates drought conditions by speeding the rate of drying and increasing stress.  Rainfall distribution is also expected to become more erratic, contributing to more frequent and intense drought events as the global temperature rises.

The current drought is having a severe impact on growers throughout the region.  While New York is characterized by abundant natural resources for water, this also means that many crops are grown without irrigation and, for others, irrigation infrastructure is not sufficient to deal with drought of this intensity.  The largest farms may have more extensive irrigation capacity, with a few well-irrigated crops thriving, but access to sufficient water is a widespread problem.  Steve Reiners, Horticulture Chair at Cornell University, describes the plight of many local growers:

“In looking at vegetable crops in the region, most growers have some type of irrigation, which up until 2 weeks ago was probably keeping pace.  But some ponds are drying up as are the streams that feed them, so more and more growers are deciding what they really need to water and what they might have to let go.  The fallback position will be to focus on those crops with a high investment in plastic mulch and trickle irrigation, and with the greatest likelihood of a good return (tomatoes, peppers, melons, summer squash).  If it’s grown in bare ground (pumpkins snap beans, sweet corn, root crops for example), I’m seeing farmers walk away from them.  And you mentioned sweet corn as a crop that many have already lost! Here the drought has a double whammy.  When the plants are still relatively small, dry conditions will lead to small ears.  If corn is drought-stressed at silking (flowering), we see lots of missing kernels due to poor pollination and unmarketable ears.

“Of course constant irrigation also means growers are constantly working to move/turn on/turn off irrigation and they are left with little time to sleep.  I can see where it’s having an impact on them, mentally and physically. Plus, not only has it been dry, but we have had days of 90F with a 25 MPH wind.  So just trying to keep up with the irrigation needs is almost impossible.

“Because it has been dry from the start, if there is one positive development it is that annuals have sent their roots deep to find moisture, which delayed some of the drought effects.  All that would have been great if we could have gotten a good rain in the last couple of weeks but it’s been spotty at best.

“So we are seeing reduced yields and smaller fruits this year.  Without the water we just don’t see plant cells enlarge so all the fruited crops are small and not sizing up very well.  On the other hand, sugars/flavor and soluble solids are high.  If you can get production the taste will be incredible this year!”

Darcy Telenko, Extension Vegetable Specialist with the Cornell Vegetable Program in western New York (a regional Cornell Cooperative Extension team), adds that in Genesee and Orleans Counties, the fields are so dry that there have been fires during straw removal.  Robert Hadad, also with the Cornell Vegetable Program in western New York, brings up, indirectly, the impacts on native ecosystems (a whole other topic) and the spill-over onto agriculture when wild animals are hungry, thirsty, and a little desperate:

“The last week seems to have been a breaking point for some growers because the creeks have gotten too low. Ponds are drying up. One farmer I visited in the Naples area said they had over 28 inches of rain last growing season (March through October) and less than 4 inches this season. From floods to desert!

“If we don’t see rain very soon, I think the losses will start mounting.  The two- and four-legged critters are more voracious when it’s this dry. We are seeing lots of damage in new sweet corn from geese. Deer are eating everything else. It’s ugly!”

Marvin Pritts, a berry specialist and professor in the Horticulture Section, says that small fruits are experiencing problems as well:

“Strawberries were quite small this year from the heat and lack of water (irrigation isn’t quite the same as a good rain). The blueberry crop was reduced due to the February cold and early April freeze, so the crop is reduced. What berries are left are being severely damaged by birds who seek out fruit in dry years since there is less natural fruit to eat, and the blueberries are a source of water/moisture. If the dry weather continues, blueberries will drop prematurely. There is still time to salvage fall raspberries if the rains pick back up.

“I am hearing about growers who are concerned about lack of water in ponds and streams where they irrigate from. Just this morning I had a call about high fecal coliform counts in irrigation water since the bacteria aren’t as diluted as they normally would be.”

And Finally, despite deeper perennial root systems, not even tree crops are escaping the stress and impacts.  Gregory Peck, an assistant professor in the Horticulture Section at Cornell University who specializes in pomology, says:

“Severe drought can stunt the growth of young fruit trees, and can reduce fruit size on mature trees as well as leading to increased physiological disorders in the fruit such as sunscald and bitterpit.

“Last year, growers were dealing with flooded fields, this year, they’re dealing with drought. This is an example of the weather extremes that are predicted to occur in the northeastern U.S. due to climate change.

“Many apple growers in New York are struggling to keep up with the water demands of their trees. This is especially true for those who have young trees on dwarfing rootstocks. However, with sophisticated drip irrigation systems and using a new apple evapotranspiration model that was developed by Dr. Alan Lakso (now available on Cornell’s NEWA mesonet website), growers can be very efficient with their water use. These sorts of technological solutions to variable climatic conditions are going to become extremely important solutions to climate change in the coming years.”

Unfortunately for these growers and their customers, the drought is likely to continue and may well get worse before it gets better.  At this point it would take a couple inches of long slow rain over a couple days to begin bringing major relief.  The current patterns of scattered thundershowers have been far too little, and the sudden torrents in the areas that do get lucky often lead to as much run-off from hardened soil surfaces as actual soil rewetting to depth.

Long-range summer weather predictions are difficult and often wrong, which is   the only weak hope we have to offer.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA) predicts that the summer in the northeast will be warmer than usual.  ACCUWeather just put out a forecast that the next weeks will see potentially record breaking heat in the Midwest with unusually hot, dry conditions reaching into western New York for the second half of July and early August.

August 18 update for the Northeast and eastern Great Lakes Region:

Beneficial rains (2 to 4 inches, locally to 6 inches in northwestern Pennsylvania and 8-10 inches in northern Indiana and southwestern Lower Michigan) fell across much of the northeastern quarter of the Nation, preventing additional deterioration, and in several areas, improving conditions. In general, enough rain (more than 2 inches) fell for a one-category improvement in the southern half of Lower Michigan, most of Indiana, the western half of and northeastern Ohio, northern Pennsylvania, extreme southwestern and south-central New York, northwestern New Jersey, northeastern Connecticut, and southwestern New Hampshire. The rains were especially welcome as temperatures averaged well above normal (6 to 10 deg F) and felt even more oppressive with the high humidity. USGS stream flows showed short-term (instant, 1- and 7-day averages) recovery in these areas (above to much-above normal), although longer-term (14- and 28-day averages) values were in the normal to subnormal class. While the rains may have aided the soybean crop, the precipitation may have been too late to help earlier planted corn.

However, some portions missed out on the heavy rains (e.g. western New York and coastal New England) where less than 0.5 inches fell). Accordingly, conditions deteriorated there, including an expansion of D3 into northeastern Massachusetts and southeastern New Hampshire, and two new D3 areas in western New York, one along the I-90 corridor, and another in the southern Finger Lakes region.

ny-drought-map-aug-16
U.S. Drought Monitor map for New York for August 16. View latest map.

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90-day deficits of 4-8 inches were common across coastal New England and western New York, with 8-12 inch accumulated deficiencies at 6-months. In eastern Massachusetts, USGS stream flows failed to rise substantially after this week’s rains, remaining in near- to record low levels at all time periods. The Massachusetts Drought Management Task Force met on Aug. 11 and recommended that all of the state be included in the drought declaration, and that the drought watch for central and northeast Massachusetts be upgraded to drought warning. In western New York, wells in Genesee County had gone dry or had reduced pressure, while officials in Ithaca, NY, stated on July 27 that if significant rains did not fall soon, the town and Cornell University could be out of water in the next 30 days as their municipal water sources at Falls and Six Mile Creeks were at record low levels. According to NASS/USDA, Aug. 14 statewide topsoil moisture rated short to very short was at 100, 92, 80, 67, 62, 59, and 55 percent in RI, MA, CT, NH, VT, OH, and ME, respectively, and those values represented a weekly improvement or no change. Statewide subsoil moisture rated short to very short was similar, with values ranging from 89% in Connecticut to 26% in New Jersey, with most other Northeastern states above 50%. Statewide pastures conditions (%) with over half rated very poor or poor included CT (87), RI (80), NH (78), MA (58), and ME (52). Farther west, short-term abnormal dryness (60-days) has expanded in southeastern Wisconsin as accumulated shortages have reached 3-5 inches.

September 1 update

The latest Drought Monitor map published September 1:

ny-drought-map-sept-1-2016

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Category: What's With the Weather

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