CORTLAND — Every two days, Calvin Lietzow takes two one-gallon jugs, fills them at a 1,000-gallon water tank and hauls the water to his squash plants 50 or 60 feet away. It takes about a half-hour, but it’s the only way the geneticist can keep his hobby plants alive.
“Squash are notoriously greedy,” said Lietzow, of Cortlandville, who rents three garden plots off Fairview Drive to grow squash — he works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at Cornell University. “Ideally, I water every other day, but they can survive three or four days. Still, they’re stunted.”
Virtually all of Cortland County is in moderate or severe drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, has issued a drought watch for all of New York.
Cortland County has seen between half and three-quarters of its typical rainfall since April, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center in Ithaca. That’s a deficit of between 3 and 5 inches. Farmers got almost nothing from a second cutting of hay, and the third isn’t looking any better. And they’re even irrigating feed-corn crops.
Here’s how you know it’s dry:
– You can count the shades of brown in your lawn, from tan to a deep chocolate brown.
– The grass crunches underfoot.
– Walk in a state forest and you can smell the trees baking.
– Trails along normally squishy wetlands are dry and cracked.
Amanda Barber, director of the county Soil and Water Conservation District, doesn’t have to look at the aquifer monitors to see how dry it is. She just has to look in the sink every time she does dishes – her well went dry Sunday, as did a neighbor’s.
“That’s never happened,” said Barber, who has lived on the Freetown farm all her 47 years.
Aquifer low: Kyle Gunn of Groton leaned over and brushed the dust off his 2014 Chevrolet Cruze. He’d gotten away from washing it.
“I haven’t washed it in two months,” he said between swipes with the soap-laden brush at Cortland’s Best Car Wash on Route 13 in South Cortland. “I saw a bunch of pollen and dust and said ‘Uh, I gotta wash.'”
The aquifer over which that car wash sits waters 30,000 of the county’s 50,000 residents and is 6 inches lower than is normal for July, said Pat Reidy, a water quality specialist with the Soil and Water Conservation District. It recharges quickly, he said, but the water remains below even typical August levels — the lowest all year.
“For the larger water supply, I don’t think there’s any imminent threat,” Reidy said. But not all parts of the aquifer recharge equally. “Cortlandville has less of a source area than, say the city of Cortland or Homer.”
It’s counterintuitive, but Gunn washing his car is actually a water-saver. The car wash recycles the water, said manager Sean Coville, something you don’t get from using the hose in your driveway.
The aquifer may be in no danger, but 40 percent of the county doesn’t get its water from the aquifer, Reidy said. It gets water from bedrock or other repositories — like Barber’s home in Freetown.
“There may be quite a few out there at risk,” Reidy said.
Easy water savings: Daryl Reynolds watched his 6-year-old granddaughter Chloe Fisher splash in the pool at his River Street home. “She’d stay in that water 24/7, if she could,” he said.
Chloe practiced her dog paddle and floating on her back — neither of which she could do a few weeks ago when Reynolds had the pool filled. It took 2 1/2 loads from firefighters at $100 a load to fill the pool — perhaps 3,000 gallons.
“We’ve gotta do it for the grandkids,” Reynolds said. “You’ve got to have something for them when they come over. But look at the lawn.”
Agencies are not yet calling for water-savings measures, but simple steps add up, Barber and Reidy said. Use soaker hoses instead of sprinklers on your garden, and let the lawn go dormant. Barber is a big fan of installing rain barrels under the gutter spouts to get what water does come down.
Lietzow spreads plastic beneath his squash to prevent evaporation, but mulch will do much the same thing. And that he uses gallon jugs means precision watering. “I have a pretty low-budget operation,” he said.
Cut shower times. And use a touch of water in the sink to rinse a razor or toothbrush rather than let the water run. Easy things.
“A leaky toilet can use a lot of water,” Reidy said.
Jeffrey Betters, superintendent at Walden Oaks Golf Course, said the turf is fine — if sucking up a lot of water. “The issue is the trees,” he added. “Some are losing leaves already. It’s going to be a problem with the woody ornamentals.
“Pray for rain, brother.”
No clouds on the horizon: Other challenges are harder to overcome. Farmers need water to keep the crops going. Barber, a farmer herself, expects that for farms whose primary income is crops. But she’s seeing it on farms that raise cows, too, and just keep a field or two to corn to supplement the feed.
“We don’t usually have to worry about water quantity,” she said. “The fact that people are irrigating is something unusual.”
But it will be common until more rain falls. And unless Cortland gets a tropical system — a hurricane or something similar for a good, soaking rain — in the next few weeks, nothing is likely to change until fall, said Erik Heden, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Broome County.
“We’ve had a lot of storms, but they’re all east of Interstate 81,” Heden said. “We don’t have any good news.”
Good news for him, either. Heden is a gardener with a fondness for his 40 rose bushes. His rain barrels are empty.