Drought Watch comes early

| 15 Apr 2015 | 06:20

— It may surprise those who have watched a winter's worth of snow dissolve into the ground to learn that a drought watch is in effect in Pike County.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says that, despite the recent surge of snowmelt, groundwater isn't being recharged, and is now below average in 27 counties. Low groundwater levels can cause well-fed water supplies, both private and public, to go dry, says the DEP.

Of the 27 counties, eight, including Pike, have reached emergency levels with regard to groundwater, even as surface water remains normal (see chart).

The DEP attributes the low groundwater levels to last fall's very dry weather, compounded by below-average precipitation in January and February. Groundwater levels might not return to normal before summer, says the DEP.

Under the drought watch, DEP is urging Pennsylvanians to conserve water. The agency is asking all water suppliers in the affected areas to monitor their stores, particularly those that rely on groundwater, and to update their drought contingency plans.

A drought watch declaration is the first and least-severe level of the state’s three drought classifications. It calls for residents to voluntarily cut back on their water use by 5 percent, and puts large water consumers on notice to begin planning for the possibility of reduced water supplies. See related article for water conservation tips.

Through a program with the U.S. Geological Survey, DEP helps fund a network of gauges that monitor groundwater levels and stream flows around the state. The state's drought coordinator uses the data when making decisions about drought classifications.

In addition to precipitation, groundwater and stream flow levels, DEP monitors soil moisture and water storage, makes recommendations about water conservation, and does water audits on commercial and industrial users like food processors, hotels and schools.

The 27 counties under the drought watch are Berks, Bradford, Cambria, Carbon, Clinton, Columbia, Indiana, Lackawanna, Lawrence, Luzerne, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Monroe, Montour, Northumberland, Pike, Potter, Schuylkill, Snyder, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, Union, Wayne, Westmoreland, and Wyoming.