As drought lingers in central and northern NY, wells dry up

Oct 13, 2016

Most of northern and central New York is still experiencing a drought, despite some rain this weekend. Groundwater reserves are depleted in wells across the region. Farmers are trucking in water for their livestock, people are digging new wells for their homes and towns are trying to find ways to conserve this now limited resource.

This year’s dry summer first put a dent in the hay crop.  Then it made cornfields turn from lush green to golden brown until they resembled rows of pineapples. Now, after six months of little rain, wells around the region are drying up.

This old-fashioned rig will likely need to drill through 140 feet of bedrock before hitting water.
Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News

  An old-fashioned drill rig raised and dropped into granite bedrock outside a home in Canton in St. Lawrence County. Richard Collins said his rig is drilling about a foot and a half an hour, searching for water. He said it’ll likely have to drill down at least 140 feet before he finds it.

Collins's well-drilling business is a one-man operation and  he said this season he’s been very busy. “This year I can’t work fast enough. I’m turning work away. There’s just so much of it.” 

Roger Bailey said he asked Collins to drill the new well outside his home after the water in his old dug well ran low.

“I saw what my wife Bobby had to do to carry water that we could drink, taking showers in other people’s houses. We’re not living life the same way,“ Baily said.

The village Copenhagen, in the Tug Hill, is living off water from just one well. The other two dried up weeks ago. Village mayor Scott Alexander said the water in the well was trucked in from Carthage and Lowville over the weekend.

He said for now, the village is holding its own. “As long as everyone does their part to conserve water, we’ll be okay.”

Alexander said a big part of that is just being aware of how much water you’re using. Village school bus drivers are now washing yellow school buses from water taken straight from the Black River.

Copenhagen Central School has replaced their plates and bowls with paper to save water used in washing dishes.
Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News

 At Copenhagen Central School, Superintendent Scott Connell walked me into the school’s cafeteria on pizza day. Students sat together at round tables eating their slices of pizza off paper plates. In the food line, students chose between paper bowls filled with corn, carrots and peas.

“If you look in the garbage can, most of that normally would be going in the dishwasher. Now it’s going into the trash because is paper,” Connell said.

The school is throwing out extra bags of garbage but according to Connell, that’s not a big concern right now. “We’re saving close to a thousand gallons a day by doing what we’re doing. There’s not a lot more we can do. We have to flush toilets and we have to allow kids to wash their hands.” Connell says the school has managed to reduce the amount of water needed for every toilet flush.

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, northern and western New York has gotten around 11 inches of rain since March. That’s little enough for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to list Broome, Jefferson Lewis and Oswego counties as disaster areas. That means farmers there can get federal aid, but some agriculture leaders in Jefferson County say a few farms in the area are worse off than others and need more. A weather station on Woods Farm in Cape Vincent reported only 4 inches of rain for the entire spring and summer.

At Lucky 7 livestock farm in Rodman, these pigs require 600 to 900 gallons of water a day.
Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News

At Lucky 7 livestock farm in Rodman, Steve Winkler showed me a 300-gallon jug on the bed of a pickup truck. He’s been filling this up two, sometimes three times a day for his hundreds of pigs.

“North of the Black River is way worse than we are…I’m living and breathing this stress every day and I know there are guys in worse shape than me hauling more water,” Winkler said.

Livestock farmer Steve Winkler fills this 300-gallon jug of water twice a day from his neighbor's well for his hundreds of pigs.
Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News

Some farms have drilled new wells. Others are dealing with much lower yield of corn than last year. Winkler has hired a contractor to search for more surface water. In the meantime, he’s getting what he needs from a neighbor’s well up the street.

“I hope it doesn’t go into January or February. That valve is going to freeze and we’re going to have to heat it. It’ll magnify the stress level here."

Winkler said he thinks we’re knocking on the door of some pretty bad weather and everyone is hoping that added moisture in the air and on the ground will help recharge the region’s groundwater.