A hot, dry summer means drought for Riverhead

09/02/2015 3:00 PM |

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After months of below average rainfall and strong sunshine, the North Fork is facing one of its worst droughts in recent years. And various segments of the community, from water authorities to farmers, are feeling the heat.

“We’re working around the clock, we’re working double shifts — we’ve been working double shifts since the middle of July to today,” said Mark Conklin, superintendent of Riverhead’s water district. “It’s been a tough, tough, tough summer.”

Statistically, July and August 2015 have seen around half the average amount of rain for those months. In July, the National Weather Service station in Upton (near Brookhaven Lab) recorded 1.34 inches of rain; from Aug. 1 to Aug. 27, it recorded 1.51 inches.

No 30-year averages are available for the Upton station, but compared to the closest available station in Islip, those numbers are quite low. Islip’s average rainfall total for July is 3.34 inches — a full two inches more than was recorded this year in Upton. Islip’s August average is 3.98 inches.

“We haven’t had weather like this since 2010,” Mr. Conklin said.

Mr. Conklin said “everybody is on overtime” in his department because increased demand means more people must be on duty to maintain the systems at all times and ensure the pumps function properly and chemical levels are normal.

Even back in July, the NWS said Long Island had been in a “moderate drought” since the end of April.

With so little water falling, residents have turned to their water systems more than usual. The Riverhead Water District, which operates separately from the Suffolk County Water Authority, pumped 517 million gallons of water in August — 6 million more than its previous August high.

According to the SCWA, county residents used about 5 percent more water in July 2015 than in July 2014.

Many farmers have had to run their irrigation systems nonstop to ensure that crops get the hydration they need to survive, a process that often adds financial strain since more fuel means less profit.

“Right now, you put irrigation on and it’s drying up within a couple of days,” said John Zilnicki of Edward Zilnicki Farms in Riverhead. “The irrigation motors are staying on. It makes it tough.”

Karen Lee, owner of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, echoed that sentiment.

“We’re struggling,” she said. “It’s been extraordinarily dry.”

Ms. Lee said she has lost some plants, but not too many. Right now, she said, she’s balancing the two-headed challenge of maintaining current crops while saving enough water so that the fall’s seedlings can grow.

She pointed to staff shortages as another problematic byproduct of the drought. Since so many of her employees must tend to the irrigation lines — which are already “critically short” — other daily activities such as harvesting and weeding get overlooked.

“Irrigation is so critical that other things are going by the wayside,” she said. “Some of my crops are almost getting overrun by weeds. I may actually lose them from the weeds. I don’t have the labor to cultivate them because people are running around doing irrigation.”

At Bayview Farms in Aquebogue, employee Charlotte Liebert said the “produce is beautiful” but at the cost of more and more water.

“They’re watering almost 24/7,” she said.

Jamesport potato farmer John Kujawski saw such dryness that he ran his irrigation system even after harvesting his crops. He was fumigating the fields, but the substance was not entering the arid soil, so he had to water it for the process to take hold.

Aside from local farms, the drought poses several risks for residents. Mr. Conklin said that, so far, there have been no problems with the water table, but he worries about a greater risk of fires.

On July 29, he published a statement on the Town of Riverhead’s website urging residents to conserve water, especially between midnight and 8 a.m., when larger commercial properties tend to irrigate.

“It really is a matter of public safety to limit water usage to be sure we can meet the demand in times of unforeseen emergencies,” Mr. Conklin wrote in the statement.

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Photo Caption: A farmer plows a dusty field in Jamesport Monday morning.

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