Growing drought threatening well-water levels across state

University Park, Pa. -- After months of very little rainfall, and with long-term weather forecasts predicting little improvement through fall and early winter, well owners across the state have begun to grow uneasy, according to a groundwater expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

All of Pennsylvania is under a drought watch, and state officials recently declared a drought warning for 24 counties. The driest counties are in the far eastern and far western parts of the state, bordering Ohio and New Jersey. There is also a very dry region in the southwest around Somerset.

"The last serious drought we had that affected groundwater and well levels across Pennsylvania was in 2002, and I have already begun hearing from some of the people who experienced water-quantity problems with their wells then," said Bryan Swistock, water resources extension specialist in the college's School of Forest Resources. "Well owners should be conserving their water."

This drought started in April, which was a dry month around the state, according to Swistock. That was followed by sporadically dry May, June and July. "August and especially September were very dry throughout the state," he said. "The drought accelerated pretty rapidly."

Historically, the current dry conditions are not that impressive, Swistock conceded, but he's concerned by the current trend. "This drought so far is not a record-breaker by any means, but 2010 was in the top one-third or one-fourth of the state's drier years in the records going back into the 1800s," he explained.

"The official NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) long-term weather forecast indicates that this drought will be persistent in Pennsylvania through the winter. It may not get worse, but the outlook shows it is not likely to improve."

The one caveat in the dry weather forecast is the unpredictable nature of tropical moisture that could find its way to Pennsylvania and ease drought conditions.

"If remnants of one or two of the tropical storms that form in the south Atlantic this fall move northward and track over Pennsylvania, they could eliminate the drought," Swistock said. "There is a lot of tropical moisture around -- but none of it has found its way to Pennsylvania yet."

To recharge water tables and boost well-water levels, rains must fall before the ground freezes -- usually in December -- because after that, precipitation is not absorbed by the ground and simply runs off, Swistock pointed out. "We are now at our traditional annual low point for streams and groundwater," he said.

"This is a critical recharge period we are entering -- it's a dangerous time to be in a drought condition."

What you can do

Water-conservation measures become critical during times of drought. Homeowners relying on private wells can significantly reduce water consumption by changing habits and installing water-saving devices, according to Swistock.

"In emergency situations, changes in water-use habits can provide quick reductions in water use," he said. "Examples include flushing the toilet less often, taking shorter showers, washing only full loads of dishes or laundry, and collecting water from roof gutters for outside use."

It is important to note that certain drought declarations also may require water-use reductions or restrictions on water use, Swistock said. For example, a "drought emergency" declaration bans the nonessential use of water, such as car washing and lawn watering. These regulations apply to everyone, including homeowners with private wells.

Swistock advised water-well owners to monitor nearby groundwater levels online. "You might be able to detect potential problems early and implement water-conservation strategies that may prevent your well from going dry," he said.

For more information on ways to save water around the home, consult the Penn State Cooperative Extension publications, "22 Ways to Save Water in an Emergency," "Household Water Conservation" and "Managing Your Well During a Drought." These publications are available at http://extension.psu.edu/water online.

You can learn about groundwater levels in your area through a website provided by the U.S Geologic Survey. Although not specific to your well, information from monitoring wells will allow you to observe the general trend in groundwater levels in your area. For a list of the available monitoring wells by county, go to http://pa.water.usgs.gov/durplots/well_duration.html online.

For more information on management of wells and springs in Pennsylvania, visit http://www.sfr.cas.psu.edu/water or contact your local Cooperative Extension office.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010