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For the latest updates on drought conditions, go to the current conditions webpage.

New York is rich with water resources. Our celebrated streams, lakes, and coasts are fed by an average annual precipitation that ranges from 60 inches in the Catskills to 28 inches in the Lake Champlain Valley. But even here, in our "temperate moist" climate, normal fluctuations in regional weather patterns can lead to periods of dry weather. Occasional drought is a normal, recurrent feature of virtually every climate in the United States. The last severe droughts in New York occurred in the mid-1960s, and again in the early and mid-1980s.

Two photographs of the Cannonsville Reservoir. Upper photo shows reservoir at full capacity. Lower photo shows reservoir in December 2001 when it was at 6.5% of full capacity.
Cannonsville Reservoir. Lower photo
shows same view as upper except at
6.5% capacity (Dec 20, 2001)

How do we determine when there is a drought in NYS?

While most of us know that a drought is a prolonged period of dryness, the definition and information used to formally declare a drought is more complex. Meteorologists and hydrologists have their own precise definitions of drought. When meteorologists talk about drought they are comparing precipitation shortfalls to normal levels. Hydrologists consider stream flow and water levels in aquifers, lakes, and reservoirs along with precipitation. New York uses elements of both to determine when there is a drought.

The State Drought Index compares four parameters to historic or "normal" values to evaluate drought conditions: stream flows, precipitation, lake and reservoir storage levels, and groundwater levels. New York's Drought Management Task Force uses those factors as well as water use, duration of the dry period, and season to assess drought in different parts of the state.

New York also uses the Palmer Drought Index, a measure of soil moisture calculated by the National Weather Service. The two indices show us different things about drought. The Palmer Index, with its emphasis on soil moisture, helps us understand agricultural impacts. The State Index helps assess the impact on human welfare and the regional economy.

The Four Drought Stages and What They Mean

There are four stages of drought that can be declared in New York State. The Drought Plan describes the actions to be taken during each drought stage by water purveyors, towns and villages, water authorities, and other agencies with water supply responsibilities.

  • Drought Watch - The least severe of the stages, a drought watch is declared when a drought is developing. Public water suppliers begin to conserve water and urge customers to reduce water use.
  • Drought Warning - Voluntary water conservation is intensified. Public water suppliers and industries update and implement local drought contingency plans. Local agencies make plans in case of emergency declaration.
  • Drought Emergency - The Governor may declare emergency. The Disaster Preparedness Commission coordinates response. Mandatory local/county water restrictions may be imposed. Communities may need to tap alternative water sources to avoid depleting water supplies, protect public health and provide for essential uses.
  • Drought Disaster - Disaster plans are implemented. Water use is further restricted. The Governor may declare disaster and request federal disaster assistance. Emergency legislation may be enacted. The state provides equipment and technical assistance to communities.

Drought Regions

New York is divided into nine drought management regions based roughly on drainage basin (watershed) and county lines. DEC monitors precipitation, lake and reservoir levels, stream flow, and groundwater level at least monthly in each region and more frequently during periods of drought. DEC uses this data to assess the condition of each region, which can range from "normal" to "drought disaster."

Some areas of the state may make their own determinations of drought stage, using different criteria. For example, the New York City system relies largely on upstate reservoirs for its water supply. The City bases its assessment of drought conditions on the probability of the reservoirs being full by the following June.

How New York Stays Prepared

Developed and implemented by the New York Drought Management Task Force, the State Drought Management Coordination Annex (PDF) focuses on research, monitoring and possible legislative actions to help prevent and mitigate impacts from droughts. The Task Force coordinates actions prior to declaration of drought emergency, at which time the New York State Disaster Preparedness Commission takes over (leaves DEC website).

The NYSDEC and USGS are partners in evaluating hydrologic conditions across New York State. Data evaluated includes stream discharge, water levels, precipitation, and components from water-quality monitors. This information and additional information from other Federal, State, and local agencies assist the NYSDEC and the State Drought Management Task Force in evaluating regional conditions for determination of drought classifications. The USGS maintains tables and reports of monthly hydrologic conditions (leaves DEC website). The map shows the latest Hydrologic Conditions Network, which includes monitoring wells and stream gauging stations.

Hauling Potable Water

In times of drought, residential wells and springs are often the first drinking water resources to run dry. It has become common in parts of New York State to truck water to residents in need. This water is often pumped into failing wells in an effort to replace diminishing groundwater. While this may provide some short term relief, it can be a bad practice for several very important reasons. Please read an article titled Hauling Potable Water: Good or Bad?, excerpted from Size Up, the magazine of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.

There is another important component to putting water down wells (assuming it is clean and the hauler is properly certified). Federal requirements of the Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program consider placement of water (even potable water) down a well to be underground injection. NYSDOH has an agreement that certified bulk haulers can submit a copy of their NYSDOH monthly operating report (DOH Form 357b) to EPA for any month when they put water down a well, thereby meeting the UIC reporting requirements. If water is placed in a well and not reported to EPA, it is in violation of UIC requirements. The web link to the proper form is shown in the right column of this page.

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