Earth Matters: Drought days of summer

Earth Matters: Drought days of summer

By Jennifer Wilson-Pines

When you hear about drought in the news, it’s generally the West Coast and Southwest with images of dried-up reservoirs, cracked earth and terrifying wildfires. But up until the rainstorm after Labor Day, Long Island had been in drought conditions since July. Not just the island, but along the East Coast running from the New Jersey shore up to Maine, encompassing seven states.

The recent rainfall will help restore stressed plants and wildlife if we continue to get rain at regular intervals. But not all areas of the island got relief. A friend on the South Shore farther east didn’t have the one inch I had in my backyard rain gauge, only getting light drizzle as the storm stayed north and west.

Drought tends to be a cyclical phenomenon, but generally the East Coast with high humidity, rainfall and snowfall doesn’t experience the extremes of the West. The last long-term drought brought on watering restrictions that still remain in place, though rarely enforced. But even the short period of drought recently experienced had impacts.

Trees responded to the lack of rain by drawing moisture out of leaves, which made it appear fall was coming early. Some were so stressed that they died. Fruit and berries dried up on the branch and vine. Agriculture suffered – at this time of year, supermarkets and farm stands usually have huge bins of local sweet corn, not sealed packs of $1 an ear corn.

Small ponds and streams dried up, forcing wildlife to seek other sources of fresh water. I noticed that in many of the parks where I go looking for birds, water features had evaporated. In Hempstead Lake State Park, Schodack pond is a mud puddle growing a crop of smartweed, and the stream that flowed out of it can be walked with dry feet.

At Nickerson Beach the freshwater pond next to the parking lot is down to a few inches of water and the pond in the dunes dried up in the spring, possibly contributing to the poor survival rate of the endangered Piping Plovers chicks who then had to make their way to the shore to feed.

The pond at Garvies Point Museum and Preserve was reduced to a muddy puddle.
The impact of the drought has rippling effects. The dying plants provide less food to birds, insects and wildlife. Fortunately, most birds had raised their broods before the drought really set in, but those young birds and a wave of migrant birds seeking insects, fruit and seeds to nourish them on their long journeys to the south are finding very reduced supplies.

Here on Long Island, drought can have long-term effects that won’t be felt for years. The only replenishment of our sole source aquifer is rainfall and snow melt. Drought at a time of greatest withdrawal from the aquifer — mostly to irrigate turf grass lawns — can trigger saltwater intrusion into our only source of drinking water. Turf grass is meant to be dormant (brown) during our hot summers — it’s native to the cooler, wetter climes of northern Europe.

Along the North Shore where we did just get an inch of rain, only potted plants should be watered unless we don’t get more rain within a week. If you have an irrigation system, it should have a moisture sensor installed. All too often I’ve seen sprinklers going during a rainstorm or watering the street because they aren’t properly oriented.

Even without the pressure of drought, we need to be careful with our freshwater, as we live on top of our only source of drinking water, and we must share that precious commodity with the plants and animals who don’t have the option to run down to the store and buy a case of bottled water.

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