SCHENECTADY & SARATOGA COUNTIES — With the Capital Region experiencing abnormally dry weather and the Mohawk River not yet dammed as usual, several communities that get water from the Great Flats Aquifer in Schenectady County have just imposed water restrictions.
The region has seen below-normal precipitation since the beginning of May, at the same time that the aquifer isn’t getting its usual recharge from the river because the river isn’t currently dammed to increase water levels in the Erie Canal.
The town of Glenville on Friday declared a “Level 2 water emergency,” which drastically limits lawn watering, along with filling swimming pools and washing streets and sidewalks.
The town of Ballston, which relies on Glenville for much of its water supply, earlier this week imposed an odd/even street number lawn watering policy, as did the town of Clifton Park, which cited “very low” supply from its groundwater wells in the Vischer Ferry Preserve.
“This situation is highly unusual, and in my opinion completely man-made,” said Glenville Supervisor Chris Koetzle. “I guess we can trace everything back to COVID-19, which delayed projects the Canal Corp. was going to be doing.”
A reason cited by local officials is that the New York State Canal Corp. has not installed the lock dams usually in place at this time of year. That means there are no impoundments of water behind those dams to recharge local groundwater, plus the river is suffering from a lack of rainfall this spring.
The dams aren’t in place because the Canal Corp. is still completing winter maintenance work — work that was delayed in March when construction had to be suspended at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Work did not resume until late May.
Normally, the canal system opens in mid-May. This year, the target date to install all dams and open the Erie Canal is July 15.
But because of the water situation, the lower dam gates were installed at Lock 8 on Thursday, a couple of weeks ahead of schedule.
“The Canal Corporation already had plans to install the movable dams in preparation for the upcoming navigation season, but we accelerated the installation of the dam’s lower gates at Lock E-8 to help mitigate the current situation with the Great Flats Aquifer,” said Canal Corp. spokesman Shane Mahar.
At this point, the Clifton Park Water Authority can’t pump its normal amount of water from the wells, said Don Austin, the authority’s administrator.
“We are currently pumping at capacity in all of our well sources and purchasing water from the towns of Glenville and Halfmoon, in addition to the Saratoga County Water Authority, to supplement our own supplies,” Austin said in an email.
The Clifton Park authority is asking customers to adhere to annual lawn-watering restrictions, which are in place each year from May 1 to Sept. 30. The restrictions allow customers to water their lawns only on odd or even days based on their house number — odd-numbered houses can water on odd-numbered days, for example.
“We could use some rain and some cooperation from our customers,” Austin wrote. “If everyone would adhere to the supply restrictions and think about their water consumption and its effect on the public water supply, we would be able to easily meet the demands of the system.”
In Glenville, one of the town’s five wells taking water from the Great Flats aquifer has gone dry. In declaring an emergency, town officials on Friday cited “extreme and prolonged dry conditions, and because of on-going issues with the Mohawk Lock System that have affected groundwater levels and that have left the aquifer dangerously low.”
Glenville’s Level 2 restrictions include an odd-even lawn watering system, and also forbids lawn watering between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. In addition, the filling of swimming pools is prohibited along with washing of streets, driveways, sidewalks or any impervious areas. The washing of cars and boats at non-commercial facilities is restricted to odd/even days.
The moves come at the time of year when municipal water use is typically at its highest. Both Glenville and Clifton Park see customer water use roughly triple in the summer, compared to winter use.
Koetzle said the town’s water situation is exacerbated because it sells water to several other towns — Ballston, Charlton, and Clifton Park — and customers in those towns are also using more water due to the dry conditions.
“Three things came together: prolonged dry weather, the river not being dammed, and our outside users using more water because of these conditions,” Koetzle said.
In recent days, Koetzle said town officials have talked to the Canal Corp. and to county and state elected officials about getting the dam re-installed at Lock 8. “It’s really been a full-court press,” he said. “They’ve been responsive to our concerns.”
Mahar said Canal Corp. leadership has been in regular touch with county and town officials about the situation in recent days, and was looking to help. The Erie Canal west of Niskayuna is scheduled to open on July 15, but preparation work west of Lock 7 in Niskayuna is limited because the lock is undergoing a complete rehabilitation. Equipment needed west of Lock 7 can’t be brought through the lock until the work is done.
As for dry weather, there’s no major relief in sight.
The National Weather Service in Albany reports that both May and June have seen substantially less precipitation than usual, and the current hot and humid weather is going to continue with only isolated thunderstorms to break up the heat. June, to date, has seen barely a half-inch of rain at the Albany International Airport, compared to a normal 2.33 inches. May was also dry, falling 2.09 inches below normal for the entire month.
But officially, we’re not in a drought.
“We are not officially in a drought, but conditions are being evaluated. We have been drier than normal,” said NWS meteorologist Neil Stuart.