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Summer precipitation so far: Bone dry north of Buffalo, sopping to the south

Are you looking over a lawn of brown grass again? Can't stop watering your flowers and plants?

Odds are you live north of Buffalo.

Residents in the Southtowns and the Southern Tier, however, can't cut the grass or hack back the deep, green foliage fast enough.

There are reasons for that.

South of metro Buffalo, there's been nearly triple or quadruple the rainfall that areas north of the city have seen, as of May.

Almost 11 inches of rain have fallen in Springville since May 1. In the Town of Tonawanda, a little more than 3 inches has fallen, National Weather Service data shows.

The disparity in precipitation was on full display Monday night, when heavy showers and thunderstorms set up south of Buffalo. But parched areas to the north were left high and dry again.

Meteorologically speaking, "it's kind of the opposite of lake-effect," said Jon Hitchcock, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

A sprinkler waters plants on display at the Northtown Garden Center on Sheridan Drive on July 18. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

During the summer, southwest winds flowing over a cooler Lake Erie stabilize the atmosphere from Buffalo north, suppressing thunderstorm development.

"Whenever we have a southwest wind off the lake, the Niagara Frontier tends to miss out on these chances," Hitchcock said.

Conversely, when cold air crosses the warm waters of Lake Erie from the southwest during the late fall, the atmosphere is destabilized, setting the stage for deep, moist convection — and heavy lake-effect precipitation in Buffalo and the Northtowns.

As for this spring and summer, relative atmospheric stability has meant significantly below-average precipitation across Western New York's northern half.

Only about one-third of an inch of rainfall has been measured at Buffalo Niagara International Airport so far in July. Normally, a bit more than an inch and a half falls. And that comes on the heels of below-average rainfall in May and June.

Taking care of plants

The lack of rain means plants need additional care. To help them stay alive and thrive, they must be hydrated — especially new plantings, said John Cartonia, a landscape design specialist at Northridge Nursery, 237 Lein Road, West Seneca.

"You have to thoroughly water them," said Cartonia, who advises letting a trickle of water flow into the soil over an extended period. A trickle of water flowing into the soil over about 1-1/2 hours will allow the water to soak in, he explained.

"Ideally, we would like an eight-hour drizzle of rain instead of an hour-long flash flood," he said.

Established plants should not be ignored, said Cartonia, who has been in the landscaping and nursery business for 50 years.

"Old plants need water as much as new plants. Nobody realizes that. They think, the tree has been there 30 years. Well, you've been alive 45 years and you still need water," he said. "So you have to water everything, new plantings, old plantings, grass. This is critical right now, because you don't know what's going to happen because of the stress you're causing that plant."

Drought conditions create stress not only for new plantings, but trees, shrubs and grass, he said.

"Remember, with a new planting, the plant comes out of a container, or it's in a ball that goes into the ground. It never believes it's in the ground until the roots go out and searches the ground. So it still believes it's in a pot until that happens. So when you water it, the water goes straight down one side of that, right to the subsoil and barely waters the plant. That's why 40 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, that works."

The ideal time to water plants, Cartonia said, is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

"The plant doesn't need the water if there is no sun," he said. "When there's no sun, it's not stressing and it's cooler. It's during the day when there's sun that you really need water. A plant is just like us. It stresses all day when the sun is beating it up."

Beth Sullivan waters flowers on display at the Northtown Garden Center. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Lynn Birkman is the general manager of the Northtown Garden Center, 2121 Sheridan Drive, Town of Tonawanda. She said adding fertilizer to the soil is just as important as adding water.

"Definitely, fertilizing the plants is important, anything to help get them through the drought, either like a soil-moist additive, which would help keep water in the soil, or water-absorbing crystals that will slowly release water into the soil to keep your soil moist longer," Birkman said.

Paul Motyka, owner of Red Rose Landscaping of Town of Tonawanda, acknowledged that the dry weather was a little worse than last year, but it is nothing for homeowners to be overly concerned with.

"It seems a little bit abnormally dry but, in my opinion, it's nothing too major," he said, saying that it isn't drought-like dry.

Motyka said the most of the lawns in Western New York are "cool-season grasses," meaning they're suited to survive the winter and come back in the spring.

Once the temperature gets into the 80s or above without water, the grass starts browning out and it goes dormant.

"At that point, water's just going to keep it green," he said.

Challenges for farmers

Coping with dry conditions is a whole different ballgame for local farmers like Gayle Thorpe, owner of Thorpe's Organic Family Farm in East Aurora.

While rain is important to her business, ideal conditions are hard to come by, she said.

"It seems like you can never make any one particular farmer happy," she said. "We have fields spread over quite a few miles, and so some areas got so much rain (Monday) night that we couldn't even cultivate them. As organic farmers, we need to cultivate to keep the weeds down.

"But in most of our other areas, particularly our vegetables, it's extremely dry," she said. "One thing we do ahead of time to prepare for such a thing is put out a lot of mulch, particularly on our berry plants, especially the blueberries, which are just open for 'pick your own' this week."

Thorpe said it was time to start irrigating the melons on her farm.

"The good part about not having that much rain is the fact that fungal pressure is low, so the melons are extremely healthy, but they're getting too dry now and the melons will become misshapen," she said. "So we're going to start watering. But the stream next to the field that we would irrigate out of has gone dry, too. So we have to fill a 2,000-gallon tank and haul it onto a big ol' truck and over to the field and irrigate off of our truck tank."

"I think we got at least an inch and three quarters in Java" on Monday night, Thorpe said. "So we had the tractors and the cultivators all set up to cultivate there, but it was too wet. So we cultivated where it was drier, which was almost everywhere else."

Moderate drought 

The U.S. Drought Monitor revealed early today that moderate drought conditions were in place in Niagara and Orleans counties along with a sliver of northern Erie and Genesee counties.

Niagara County and Orleans County were classified Thursday as under "moderate drought" for the first time this summer. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

A broad swath of "abnormally dry" conditions were also highlighted in central Erie County as well as the balance of Genesee County, Wyoming County and northern Allegany County.

That's new from last week's report.

Going back to last Oct. 1 — the start of what hydrologists consider the "water year" — Buffalo remains about 1.35 inches above average for precipitation.

Until Thursday, the federal Drought Monitor had only classified northern Erie County as well as Niagara, Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming counties as "abnormally dry."

"For now, it's nowhere near as serious as what we had two years ago," Hitchcock said earlier this week.

That year, the region was starting off the summer in a precipitation deficit, thanks to a drier-than-normal winter and spring.

"If it stays dry for the next few weeks, it could start to get serious," Hitchcock said.

This is the time of year when hot, sunny days tend to dry things out.

Forecasters said some relief could arrive early next week. They predict a wetter weather pattern will develop across the region with storm systems and an upper-level trough of cooler air.

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