Living with greater climate variability

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Eye from Albany
May 2002

“this drought may be sending us a message that we are entering a new era with volatile weather swings as an effect of global warming”

Living with greater climate variability
By Paul M. Bray

As I am beginning to write this Eye column in late March there is a rain and thunder storm going on while I am reading an e-mail saying that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has declared a drought emergency in New York City and ordered mandatory restrictions on water use.

I think it was only two years ago that farmers had to deal with rain-drenched fields. Yet, from October 2001 to February 2002 southeastern New York and northern New Jersey experienced the driest such period in 107 years. One has to wonder what is going on.

New York has a history of periods of dry weather even though it is rich in water resources and has a temperate and moist climate. Severe droughts occurred in the 1960s and again during the 1980s.

Drought management is now a formalized process in the State with a plan that describes the actions to be taken by water purveyors, municipalities, and others during four draught stages (watch, warning, emergency and disaster). On February 14th the Department of Environmental Conservation identified 46 counties under a drought advisory that included upgrading New York City from the status of drought watch to drought warning. This signals local public water suppliers to promote voluntary conservation like leakage control efforts and review drought emergency plans. A month earlier Governor Pataki signed an Executive Order reconstituting the State Drought Management Task Force to coordinate and manage State and local drought response efforts.

It appears that the State has its act together when it comes to drought management. Yet, this drought may be sending us a message less about the drought itself and more about entering a new era with volatile weather swings as an effect of global warming and systemic water quality and supply problems. Drought conditions may become more common and shorter in duration, but our weather may become more punctuated with very stormy, wet periods with flooding. This among other forces of urbanization is placing a lot of stress on the waters of the State.

Droughts and flooding are exacerbated by thousands of mini-problems we are facing with regard to water quality and water supply. The New York Times reported that the US Environmental Protection Agency “predicts more frequent water and sewage pipeline leaks and breaks, higher maintenance costs and a rise in coastal sewage pollution levels not seen since the early 1970s”. The gap between actual and necessary investment in water and sewage systems in urbanized America is expected to exceed $650 billion by 2019 according to a draft EPA report.

The climate change part of the puzzle is an unsettling prospect and one that the powers that be in Albany have a hard time addressing. As a legislative staff member said to me sarcastically when I asked him what the Legislature may do in light of this situation, “we are going to legislate what the weather will be”.

On the over arching issue of climate change that is most likely to be causing the volatile weather, Albany finds itself between the Bush White House that follows the thinking of the oil patch fluctuating between denial and avoidance about global warming and the grass roots that is trying to gear up for the adaptations and adjustments necessary. So far, the State Legislature has given relatively little attention of the potential impacts that increased climate variability has in store for us and we are awaiting a report with recommendations for State actions from a Governor’s NYS Greenhouse Gas Task Force that has been asked to recommend “policies and specific actions to achieve major greenhouse has reductions across all sectors of New York’s economy which will position New York as a national leader in addressing climate change”.

If there is good news on this front, it is at the grass roots and a number of small initiatives to conserve and protect our vulnerable water resources. On March 1st the Columbia Earth Institute in New York City presented findings from a comprehensive study entitled “Climate Change and a Global City” based on researcher’s assessment of the potential impacts of a long term warming trend on the New York metropolitan area. (http://metroeast_climate.ciesin.columbia.edu) This assessment is part of the National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change for the United States.

Under the heading of water supply the study reports “climate change projections indicate that the variability of the hydrological systems in the region will increase, with more frequent droughts and floods.” While it is expected that the New York City water supply systems will be able to cope with the climate uncertainty in the next decades, “there will be significant challenges in the long term”.

Inspiring participants in the study is a belief that New York City as a “leader in areas of enterprise” will spawn the innovations necessary to adapt and mitigate the negative impacts of expected climate extremes coming our way.

In the short term, the Assembly Environmental Conservation committee is working on a drought package that may address regulation of irrigation contractors, use of gray water and automatic shut off on sprinkler systems. Looking ahead the premium is going to be on energy and water conservation and taking protection of water quality to higher levels.

Regional watershed planning and protection along the lines of the evolving models of the Catskill watershed and the Finger Lakes-Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance points us in the right direction and needs to be supported and replicated.

Controls on new development based on water quality protection and availability need to be upgraded across the State.

An important regulatory step forward was the water well drillers law sponsored by Senator Marcellino and Assemblyman DiNapoli. It provides for registration of water well drillers and requires submission of their well drilling logs to the Department of Environmental Conservation. This 1999 law will facilitate mapping of groundwater and upgrade the practice of well drilling to avoid disasters like the E. coli outbreak in 1999 at the Washington County Fair associated with a well used for drinking water was drilled too close to a manure pile.

Now, Senator Marcellino has introduced water protection legislation with long overdue inspection and other requirements for septic systems necessary to manage the impact of nutrients on our water resources (S. 6206) and restrictions on steep slope development that results in pollution to waterways and public water supply (S. 6210).

On the horizon,, “low impact development” is a promising approach to control stormwater and its pollutant load that doesn’t appear to have received the attention it deserves in the State. It utilizes integrated green space, native landscaping, natural hydrologic functions and other low engineering technologies to generate less runoff from developed land. This ecologically compatible strategy results in a landscape functionally equivalent to predevelopment hydrologic conditions with less runoff and less pollution damage to lakes, streams and coastal waters. Even the ubiquitous suburban shopping mall parking lots can be retrofitted to be able to increase on site retention of storm water.

Federal laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act are forcing the State and municipalities to control nonpoint source pollution including nutrients and pollutants from farms and urban run off.

Whether or not our drought conditions continue, the State’s overriding attention needs to be on water management to protect and upgrade our water quality and maintain our water and sewage systems. We need an active and concerted effort made up of thousands of mini-solutions.

In the 1960s then Governor Rockefeller made New York State a national leader in cleaning up or rivers a pure waters program to upgrade municipal sewage treatment facilities. The time has come again to place water at the top of the State’s environment agenda and assess our water needs and the many individual water related initiatives going on to come up with a comprehensive, farsighted and effective water protection and management strategy that will let us effectively address the future effects of climate variability and our other water needs.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is PMBRAY@aol.com.