You might think of Ithaca as the last place that would suffer a water shortage, but as most of us know by now, Tompkins County is in the midst of a drought that began this summer. While the dry weather might make the walk to class more pleasant, there could be serious ecological and financial consequences if the drought continues.

Is the drought really that bad?

Yes. According to the US Drought Monitor, Tompkins county is currently in an extreme drought. “Extreme” is second highest level of drought severity, and can cause “major crop losses” and “widespread water shortages or restrictions.”  In August, the governor issued a drought warning, which involves only voluntary water conservation.

How has/will the drought affect me?

Some people have noticed cloudy or discolored drinking water. Pretty gross right? This was due to an increase in the amount of manganese in the water. Manganese is found in high levels in groundwater, which is increasingly being used as a water source since surface runoff levels are so low. Although the statement from the Tompkins County Health Department plastered all over Collegetown warned that “the City of Ithaca did not meet treatment requirements” incited panic, the notice insists that the water is still safe to drink.

However, the Northeast Regional Climate Center did issue a statement in July that warned of increased fire danger and stress on agriculture, including stunted corn growth and increased populations of pests that thrive in the dry conditions. So before you decide to wash your car or water your lawn, remember that a drought can be more than inconvenient- it can compromise people’s safety and livelihood.

How bad could it get?

Although conditions seemed to be improving with the rain in August, the water use restriction issued by Cornell University was still in effect at the beginning of September.

In the event of a drought emergency, mandatory water restrictions could be put in place, which could include a ban on washing vehicles and sidewalks and restrictions on sprinkler systems. Water won’t even be served in restaurants unless you request it.

According to The Ithaca Voice, Ithaca has backup water sources in the case the reservoir is drained, but these contingency plans could be expensive.


How does this compare with other recent droughts in the area? 

This is the first time since 2000, when the US drought monitor first started keeping track of this information, that there has been an extreme drought in Tompkins County.

What caused the drought?

Obviously, the drought was caused by a lack of rain. According to US Climate Data, Ithaca has received less-than-average rainfall from March through July, with as little as a half of the normal amount of rain in some months.

What caused Ithaca’s driest summer on record? That is a harder question. Some science speculate that higher temperatures brought on by global warming lead to increased evaporation, changing precipitation patterns causing some regions to get more rain than before and others to get less. Warmer temperatures also cause more rain and less snow, changing the timing of snowmelt, which can be an important source of water. But no one can say for sure whether this particular drought was caused by global warming.


How can I conserve waters in ways that will actually make my life more convenient?  

  • Don’t run your washing machine/dishwasher unless they are full. Who doesn’t need an excuse to do their laundry less often? Now you have an explanation when your friends ask you why you’ve worn the same shirt three days in a row and haven’t changed your sheets since you moved in.
  • Take shorter showers. A few extra minutes of sleep can go a long way. If you cut your shower from 10 minutes to 5 minutes, you are reducing your water use in the shower by 50% and gaining 5 valuable minutes of sleep.
  • Turn off the water while you are brushing your teeth. This won’t disrupt your life or your hygiene in any way. It’s so easy and so effective.