SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
August 09, 1965
The five-year drought has parched streams like Loyalsock Creek (left) in Pennsylvania, but the fishing is good in isolated pools and the hunting forecast is excellent—if rain comes
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August 09, 1965

A Dry Silence In The Northeast

The five-year drought has parched streams like Loyalsock Creek (left) in Pennsylvania, but the fishing is good in isolated pools and the hunting forecast is excellent—if rain comes

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Drive along Route 28 north of New York City these days and you find yourself in a densely wooded and thickly settled vacationland where nothing whatever seems to be happening. The blacktop curves around summer camps where everybody seems asleep, runs through abnormally quiet resort towns, passes cabins closed for the summer and skirts reservoirs where the water level is declining steadily every day. Now and then you cross a bridge over a feeder stream, famous in fly-fishing literature, but with no water in it.

The air is remarkably still much of the time, adding to the sense that life has been suspended: vapor trails of jets look solid against the cloudless sky, and the leaves are motionless on the state-owned trees of the Forest Preserve. Nothing is happening, except the worst drought since meteorological records began to be kept for the region about a hundred years ago. A drought is a negative, however; it means that something has failed to happen, rather than that anything has happened, and the dominant impression one gets is of nothingness—but on a colossal scale. The boundaries of this torpid world are vast, ranging roughly from the popular waters of Lake Wallenpaupack in Pennsylvania (which is going down a little every day because 200 million gallons are being drained off every 24 hours for emergency use elsewhere) to southern Maine and New Hampshire, where the Pemigewasset River is the lowest it has ever been. In all, the drought area spans or touches upon 11 states, encloses much of the favorite vacation playground of 30 million people and increases in size every day.

The trouble is not on the ground, however; it is in the air. Nothing has been happening in the upper air over this arid terrain for a long five years. A good time for dating the start of the drought is October 1960. In the great deer-hunting country of the western Catskills the rainfall for October used to be 3.33 inches. That had been the average for 25 years. In 1960 the rainfall in October dropped to 1.91 inches. People pay attention to such things because the deer season opens in November, and as many as 20,000 well-armed deer hunters converge on a small section of Sullivan County for the opening day of the season. Last year the rainfall in that area in October dropped to only 1.08 inches, and the woods were closed to hunters, because of the danger of forest fires, until the fifth day of the season. The woods have been closed part of the time every fall for the past three years, hitting business in the fishing-and-hunting country with an estimated $2-million-a-day loss.

The Water Resources Review of the U.S. Geological Survey noted that the Delaware River in June 1962 had reached an alltime low—only 3,410 cubic feet a second at Trenton, several miles downstream from Washington's famous winter crossing. In June 1965 however, the Delaware at Trenton was down to 2,570 cubic feet a second. Streamflow statistics seem to be deliberately designed to make it impossible for the layman to visualize the size of rivers in terms of water you can fish or swim in, but in general it works out like this: a summer creek big enough to form swimming pools for children may flow 10 cubic feet a second. Steady little rivers flow at perhaps 100 cubic feet a second. Fishing streams often range from 100 to 500—the Esopus, Neversink, Beaverkill and Rondout, to cite a few examples. What the drought means in this perspective is best indicated by a big river—the Susquehanna at Harrisburg, Pa. Last month the Susquehanna was flowing there at the rate of 4,100 cubic feet a second. But in July the Susquehanna is supposed to be flowing past Harrisburg at the rate of 15,300 cubic feet a second.

The drought did not creep up on the Northeast unobserved. By the summer of 1963 the Connecticut at Hartford was reported to be the lowest ever for July, and hunters in Pennsylvania (the leading hunting state, with a million licenses annually) were outraged because Governor Scranton closed the woods for the coming hunting season. By the summer of 1964 fishermen in New York were gazing spellbound as old stone foundations, stone fences, farm roads and sunken row-boats began to emerge from the depths where they had been hidden since the Croton River was dammed in 1842. On November 16, 1964, Neversink Reservoir was bone dry. Two weeks later Pepacton Reservoir was all but dry—down to 3% of its capacity. Last November the reservoir system as a whole was down to 25% of capacity.

That had happened before, but winter snows and spring rains usually could be depended on to bring the levels back. In the first seven months of 1965, however, precipitation in New York state came to only 13 inches, compared to an average of about 24 inches for a 25-year period. So by this summer it was not surprising that a blimp bearing the ominous sign SAVE WATER was cruising over the otherwise cloudless skies above New York; that the city restaurants did not serve water unless patrons specifically asked for it; that fountains were turned off or, if they spouted at all, were accompanied by apologetic signs stating that the water did not come from the city reservoirs. Only last week the publicity people got into the act, and gin was used in place of water for two small fountains in Tiffany's window on New York's Fifth Avenue.

Those brawling and impetuous Cats-kill trout streams have been harnessed into a system designed to supply New York with 1.55 billion gallons of water a day. Since the city's consumption is 1.2 billion gallons a day, the streams are supposed to provide storage for dry periods. But by midsummer the reservoirs were declining by more than a billion gallons daily. And by the end of July brown water was reported to be flowing from some faucets, though around 200 billion gallons remained in the reservoir system, roughly 40% of capacity.

What can be done about any catastrophe as elemental as a drought? In New Jersey, where the drought went into its 50th month, emergency plans were made to draw water from Greenwood Lake, a big fishing, boating and water-skiing refuge in the Sterling Forest. It was calculated that if such desperate measures became necessary the summer cabins on the lakeshore would be 18 feet above the water level by the time winter rains begin. In Pennsylvania on June 23, a tribe of Pueblo Indians, in Hershey for a North American Indian get-together, put on a rain dance designed to draw thunder and lightning from the clouds. That night it rained—so hard, in fact, that the Indian show had to be canceled, the sponsor went broke and the Indian Bureau had to return the Indians to their reservations. And almost no rain fell in Pennsylvania for the next 30 days. The traditional pattern of New York officials confronted with a water crisis is to be galvanized into hasty inactivity. Pressed about immediate measures, officials said that it might become necessary to shut off the water supply during certain hours of the day.

Today, New York's feeder streams flowing into the rivers—once clear, cold and full—are dry, or all but dry. Often they are no more than lines of white rock running back between walls of dusty briers. Sometimes there is a foot-wide trickle of agate-colored water flowing around the rocks. The dry feeders make a formidable hazard to future fishing, for they are needed for spawning. "But trout are tough," said John Gould, a regional supervisor of fish and game. "They can hold off spawning until late in the year." And even the most discouraged observer believes it will rain in the Catskills some day. The browns in particular are less local and more elastic in their adaptation to such violently fluctuating environments; brook trout are more vulnerable.

Oddly enough, fishing is often excellent. Robert Bielo, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission, said philosophically that fish did better during droughts than during floods. "The only area hit real hard is the upper Delaware," he said. "What the drought has done elsewhere is make tremendous fishing. The fish are isolated in pools that normally wouldn't be reached, and the fishermen are able to get at them."

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