New York Is Not Just Hot, but Parched

By James Barron

New York, NY (July 18, 2010)- They are the casualties in a profoundly parched region: the yellowed lawns; the scorched median strips on highways from Westhampton, N.Y., to West Orange, N.J.; and the orangy brown tree on the island in the lake in Central Park. Don’t worry, says the Central Park Conservancy. The tree is not dead.


After a week that was hot and mostly dry, New York sweltered through a weekend that felt even hotter than it was, because of high humidity. It was a time when many people finally faced the sizzling realities of midsummer. Weekend Lance Armstrongs shortened their rides and drank their water bottles dry. Picnickers searched for the shadiest spots to unfurl their tablecloths. Gardeners watered what they could, when they could.

“My lawn looks like hay,” said Judy Levy of Harrison, N.Y., adding that she was concentrating on saving her vegetable garden. If 2009 was the summer with no days above 90 degrees, 2010 is the summer of few days below 60 – only five in June and three in July. And rain? “This isn’t really a super-dry spell; it only seems like it because of the heat,” said Steven Fybish, a New York weather historian.

Still, last month was the driest June since 1999, Mr. Fybish said. And June 1999 was a very dry June that was followed by a very dry July, he said. By coincidence, this year, the two days in early July when the temperature climbed past 100 degrees were the first such consecutive days since – you guessed it – July 1999. July 1999 also made the record books as the hottest of all months, with an average temperature of 81.4 degrees. The average temperature this month has also been also 81.4, through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

So in this possible record-setting month of heat, to water or not to water: that is the question. This is the time of year when water consumption usually rises. So does evaporation. But there has not been much rain lately. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection said the reservoirs were lower than usual for this time of year: 86.4 percent of their capacity as of Friday, compared with the normal level for mid-July, 93.4 percent. “It’s certainly something we’re monitoring,” said Farrell Sklerov, a spokesman for the department, “but no, we’re not at a point where we have to implement conservation measures.”

So last week the city’s parks commissioner urged people to water the trees on the streets. The parks department issued a press release that said trees needed 15 to 20 gallons of water once a week. “That’s three to four large buckets,” it said, offering how-to advice: “Poke small holes at the bottom of a large trash can. Fill it with 15 to 20 gallons of water and leave the trash can next to the tree overnight.”

Beyond the five boroughs, some towns have imposed water restrictions. The result is brownish lawn next to brownish lawn, as David Reardon of Glen Ridge, N.J., knows only too well. “If mine was the only brown lawn, I would be concerned,” he said. “But now you don’t want to be the only green guy on the street.” But John Reid of Ridgewood, N.J., found a way to keep his lawn looking good enough to be in a grass-seed ad. He said that his lawn had a sheet of plastic a foot beneath the surface. That holds the water where the roots are.

The lawn liner is not his only secret: He has let the grass grow a bit longer, though not so long as to look unkempt. The idea is to keep it from drying out. Landscapers and horticulturists say stiff, brown grass will perk up with steady rain and less heat. Joe Manuella of Glen Rock, N.J., had no doubt that was true. “We’ve never had a desert in New Jersey,” he said. More than many of his neighbors, Mr. Manuella can afford to take the attitude: What, me worry? “Most of my flowers,” he said, “are plastic.”

In some places, the water rules have less to do with the lack of rain than with earthbound problems. Scarsdale, in Westchester County, imposed restrictions several weeks ago after residents living at the tops of hilly streets complained of water pressure that was too low. Melissa Chepuru said that some mornings her toilets did not flush and her shower heads produced only a trickle. She learned, after complaining to local officials, that automatic sprinkler systems that came on during the night left the water pressure so low around town that there was no oomph to push the water to her house.

Jim Macri, the water superintendent, said Scarsdale had announced a rule that lawns could be watered only two days a week. He said it was not because of the lack of rain, but because of repairs to one of Scarsdale’s two pumping stations. He said the situation had led to exactly what Ms. Chepuru described. Between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m., when scores of automatic sprinklers were programmed to turn on, the water pressure dropped.
“When we can’t use our bathrooms because our neighbors want to try, in a drought, to have green lawns,” Ms. Chepuru said, “it’s a little bit infuriating.”

Related Resource:
The New York Times- New York Is Not Just Hot, but Parched