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Western New Yorkers battle once-in-a-generation drought

A once-in-a-generation drought gripping the Buffalo area has run wells dry, turned trees dormant, provoked dairy farmers to weigh the possibility of selling off cows, and forced boaters to ground their vessels. Even the area’s bugs are parched: It’s so arid and hot, they’ve been moving indoors to escape the elements.

[Gallery: Drought in Western New York]

For most of Western New York, it has been the driest spring and summer on record in 75 years, and evidence of the drought’s severity was on display across the region:

• In Delaware Park, a cloud of dust engulfed gardener Marcus Hall as he maneuvered a lawn mower around a row of trees. But Hall wasn’t using the mower to cut grass. It’s tan as straw and hasn’t grown in weeks. Instead, he was grinding the crusty leaves that had fallen prematurely into mulch.

“I feel sorry for the trees, even the insects,” he said. “This is awful.”

• In Alden, where the water level in the community’s four wells has dropped, Mayor Michael Manicki issued a call for residents to avoid any unnecessary use of water. The village also started buying water from the Erie County Water Authority.

• Onoville Marina on the Allegheny Reservoir in Cattaraugus County will close its docks on Monday, weeks before usual, due to low water.

• Adventure Calls Outfitters hasn’t been able to run a raft trip in Letchworth State Park since June 20, and Zoar Valley Rafting closed down its three sites for rafting trips. Zoar Valley normally sees 1,500 rafters per year, but will be lucky to get 300 rafters this year, said company representative Jim Redline.

“This has been the driest five-month period since records were kept out at the Buffalo airport, starting in 1943,” National Weather Service meteorologist David Thomas said Monday. “Right now, it’s probably a once-in-a-generation drought.”

The lack of rain isn’t the only variable creating drought conditions. Other factors include:

• Above-average hot summer temperatures that have increased the evaporation rate and quickly dried out the soil.

• Below-normal snow pack level from a mild winter that left drier conditions heading into the spring.

• And the lack of any prolonged rainy period – say, over about five days – that would have softened the ground enough to keep continued rainfall from running off the concrete-hard ground.

In trying to combat the drought, Bob Stotz, director of operations for the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, has focused on recently planted trees and fending off permanent damage to the Delaware Park grounds. Conservancy groundskeepers on Monday used a former North Tonawanda fire tanker trunk to spray 500 gallons of water at a time across the fairways and fields of the park. Crews started at 7 a.m. and sprayed and refilled 18 times throughout the morning in an attempt to soften the land to receive rain that is forecast for later this week. “We’re just trying to infuse water into this rock-hard ground,” said Stotz.

Even the small amount of rain that has fallen on Western New York hasn’t done much good in softening the ground. That’s because the rain has been too intermittent.

“It just runs off,” Thomas said.

For that reason, Thomas noted that we’d be better off having five days in a row with 0.4 inches each, compared to the same 2 inches over a six-hour period.

“We’ve rarely had any prolonged periods where we’ve had even minor accumulations back to back,” he added.

The dry creek bed at Indian Falls on Tonawanda Creek. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The dry creek bed at Indian Falls on Tonawanda Creek. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Thomas also cited two factors that can help explain the lack of rain this spring and summer:

• The upper-air wind direction has been from the northeast more often than usual.

“That’s typically a dry wind for us,” he said. “We’re not getting as much Gulf moisture coming in from the south.”

• The timing of the cold fronts we have experienced. They’ve come mostly overnight.

“The cold front gives a little extra lift to the showers and thunderstorms,” Thomas said. “You want the cold front coming through in the afternoon and early-evening hours to coincide with the peak heating of the day.”

Nursery and landscaping firms are telling their anxious customers to water their annuals and perennials often.

“Fertilize and water is all you can do at this point. Hopefully everything will pull through,” said Rebecca Doel of Lincoln Park Nursery.

She said newer trees should be watered every two to three days, while more stable ones could use a drink about twice a week. That’s leaving a sprinkler running 45 minutes to an hour on the tree, or watering 10 to 15 minutes by hand, she said.

Kim Schichtel keeps an eye on the ponds at Murray Brothers Nurseries and Garden Center in Orchard Park as they get lower by the day. The ponds are the source of water for the center’s outdoor shrubs, trees, flowers and plants and Schichtel, who manages the nursery, admits to being more than a little nervous lately. In her 21 years at Murray Brothers, she’s never seen them so low.

“It seems as if we spend all day watering,” she said. “But you can’t sell dead plants. We water here every day, sometimes twice a day.”

If the ponds run dry, the nursery will turn to a well it hasn’t used in probably 30 years, said Schichtel.

But wells are no guarantee either. Art Baker, the owner of Willey Well Drilling of Sardinia, has seen a lot of wells go dry in the past two months.

“I’ve drilled wells for over 30 years,” he said. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”

By June, he was getting as many calls as he usually does at the end of the summer.

"I’m sure we won’t be caught up until fall," he said. "It’s way worse than I’ve ever seen it."

He said the other day he was called to a 140-foot well in the Yorkshire area, normally a good producing, deep well. The water table had dropped 60 feet.

He’s getting about two calls a day from people whose wells have gone dry. When that happens, they have to move in with friends or family, or truck water in to fill the well. At up to $200 a load, it buys a couple weeks until the well can be fixed or a new one dug. Baker said he usually can fix a well, but if it’s an older well, the only alternative may be to drill a new one, which could cost about $6,000.

“Most people don’t have $6,000 just sitting there for a rainy day,” he said.

The drought is felt throughout the region, but farmers are particularly impacted, Baker said.

Tyler Wight, 13, and his father, Darren, with their cows at Wight Farm in Akron. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Tyler Wight, 13, and his father, Darren, with their cows at Wight Farm in Akron. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Indeed, Darren Wight, who owns a dairy farm in Akron, said his pastures are dead, the hay fields are reduced and his silo stock piles are so low that he’s begun to dig into his winter food reserves.

“If I didn’t have a lot of feed, I would be a lot more worse than I am,” he said. Still, if conditions worsen, Wight said he may have to consider selling some of his milking cows.

They’ve been watering the fruit trees throughout the summer at Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton.

“I hate to see what my bill will be,” said President and General Manager Jim Bittner. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

The sweet cherry crop is almost done, and since cherries like the warm weather and there wasn’t a problem with disease because it’s been so dry, cherry season was outstanding, he said.

He usually irrigates sweet cherries, but this year they’re also irrigating a pear orchard, putting water on apples and peaches. The farm is keeping track of watering with computer models, which say how much to irrigate. “If we didn’t have water, we’d have really small peaches, and nobody wants small peaches,” he said.

The drought and heat have caused a number of outdoor critters to seek relief inside, including millipedes, potato bugs and ground bugs, according to Ehrlich Pest Control, formerly Buffalo Exterminating.

“We’re getting a lot of those coming inside to get out of the heat,” said Marc Potzler, a board certified entomologist with the company. The company has received calls about honey bees, as well as complaints about bats and birds. The drought also may be responsible for keeping yellow jackets at bay, since the firm usually would be receiving a lot of calls about them this time of year, said Potzler.

“We do anticipate that’s going to pick up in the next month or two,” he said. “They’re going to be stressed and probably more aggressive than normal so people should be aware of that.”

News staff reporters Jay Tokasz, Barbara O’Brien, Gene Warner and Cresonia Hsieh contributed to this report.


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