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Environmental professor weighs in on Genesee County's 'most intense' drought conditions

By Joanne Beck
Stephen Shaw
Associate Professor Stephen Shaw
Photo from SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry website

With so much talk about global warming and climate change, that would seem to be the likely culprit for drought so extreme it has dried up dozens of wells in pockets of Genesee County.

However, Stephen Shaw, associate professor for environmental resources engineering at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says it might be much more random than that.

Shaw has just completed a 20-year analysis and a report about dry wells across the entire northeast. He found that a drought in 2016 was “pretty intense,” especially across Western New York and Buffalo in particular. That didn’t match what these towns — the volume of households  — in Genesee County have experienced, he said. He echoed what locals have described as "the most intense drought" ever seen.

 “I haven't come across anything like that before. So it's definitely … it's not abnormal during dry periods to have some dry wells. But I've never seen anything where it's this many in one place,” Shaw said during an interview with The Batavian. “But I think it's just this really unusual, spatially isolated dry period. I've never seen anything like that in terms of looking at the maps and stuff. It's super dry in that area where it's happened. So it just seems like really unusual conditions, but probably nothing bigger going on. Just kind of bad luck, roll the dice for that area."

He’s been studying water, drought and well level patterns for the last two decades and noted the unusually low levels in certain areas of the county —- being experienced especially in the town of Bethany, with other areas of Pavilion and Pembroke also being affected. 

He referred to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and one spot that pops up just south of Batavia — “not a little dot, but sort of a small mark what we call spatially isolated,” he said. 

“So most of the rest of Western New York hasn't been nearly as dry as that one location. Which, in this issue, you know, when you look at that, it's like, well, it's just, it just seems like they really just had some bad luck in a way, because climate patterns, you know, are continental or maybe regional, you know, statewide,” he said. “But this is just like these really small pockets of really dry conditions. So it's really hard to pin that on climate change at a larger scale. And for anthropogenic climate change, the projections, especially for some of the East Coast and Northeast, are generally to be wetter conditions. The climate model projections would say that it's anticipated with climate change, that most likely the Northeast will be wetter, will have more rainfall.”

“The Northeast Regional Climate Center, which is based at Cornell, have these maps of precipitation deficits in the state. So you can look at this map and see the same way the drought monitor shows like this pretty spacious, spatially isolated, little spot where it's been dry, the rainfall map shows the same thing. So this is a drought that's really caused by, instead of high temperatures and higher evaporation, it's really been caused by lack of precipitation,” he said. 

So, can you attribute the lack of precipitation and resulting drought to anything?

“Not really, because it's so spatially isolated, like if it was a bigger region or, you know, the larger northeast region, but it's really just over part of the county or the town. It's really just such a small area that's dry. It's hard to say it's larger climate patterns, it just seems like kind of bad luck in terms of where rain didn't fall,” he said.

To attribute a drought to climate change, there would have to be more of a pattern established, he said, such as this happening three times every 50 years versus once every 50 years. And a climate change factor would also cover a large area, not just 20 square miles, for example, he said. 

As for a solution, it sounds like these residents will have to just wait for Mother Nature to come through, is that right?

“It should reset, it should start to refill. Sometimes through the fall, actually, that's really the driest time of the year, like through October, because you basically … have the tree leaves still in the trees. So there's still evaporation, there's not that much rainfall often. You don't really start to get a sort of replenishment of groundwater until, say, November, something like that. So maybe it's a little delayed this year,” he said. “But now, with the leaves definitely off the trees and then you don't have much evaporation. So pretty much any precipitation that falls is going to start to go to recharge. So they should start to see recharge here in the next few weeks to two months. But it can take a while as you've depleted the water, the water has been drawn down. And it takes a while to fill that backup. But there's no reason to think that it won't start to recharge, especially as we get some winter storms and wet weather.

“The drought in 2016, it actually reversed pretty quickly. Groundwater always is a little more delayed, but you know, you just get some change in storm weather patterns, and you go from not having much rain to having quite a bit in a short period of time,” he said. “I haven't looked at the forecast over there. But it sometimes doesn't take that long in terms of just to get two weeks of pretty rainy conditions and you're catching up pretty quick.”

That would be awesome news for Bethany Town Supervisor Carl Hyde Jr. and the dozens of town residents who have been scrambling for water due to dry wells the last few months and to others on the county’s west side, including Janet Seaver and at least 10 other households in Pembroke. All of those folks had been driving out of town to fill up containers on a regular basis so that their homes would have water for basic necessities. 

Only more recently, in the last couple of weeks, was Bethany able to better assist homeowners by filling totes from a large tanker stationed at town hall. The town caught the attention of the state Office of Emergency Management in Albany, and it sent a 6,700-gallon water tanker to the town for water fills. Once word began to spread about that option, the tanker was emptied in six hours, Hyde said. 

The town is now on its second tanker full of water, thanks to a refill from the county. Donations of bottled water from Casella Waste Systems, Tops Friendly Markets and Wegmans Food Markets have also allowed for drinking water distributions to those residents as well, he said.

“People have been coming for their rations. The hours are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 to 3,” he said Thursday. “The fill times are Tuesdays 5 to 7 p.m. and Thursdays 6 to 8 p.m. every week, that seems to be working for people. We still need people who need water to get on the list. Tuesday, we picked up four new people. Yesterday was the first day we had no calls.”

Town of Pembroke officials more recently began to offer filling containers with water for town residents, and the need has been there. Janet Seaver had initially counted 10 people in addition to her and her husband having dry wells, and two more wells had gone dry since then, she said.

She and her husband have been stockpiling water in barrels to “get us hopefully through February,” she said. 

“We cannot afford to drill, as we are both retired and on a fixed income,” she said. “Those that have drilled have reported paying 12 to 15 thousand. We are praying for rain and/or snow to make the wells come back, and if not, we will be living like this until public water is put through.”

A request for comment from Town Supervisor Tom Schneider about the drought and future public water possibilities was not returned Friday afternoon. 

A quick look at the extended weather forecast shows a mixed bag of rain and wet snow for at least seven more days in December in a pattern that Shaw pointed to as the beginning of winter’s recharge for dry wells. 

For more information about drought levels, go HERE

For a live water data monitor, go HERE. Shaw said that the local water table, per a well monitor just south of Batavia, has risen by two feet as of Thursday. 

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