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.
August 8, 1965
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."
Drought fishing intensifies one's impression that a drought area is one where nothing is happening. Instead of balancing on his waders in the rapids and casting again and again, the drought fisherman stands motionless on the bank and looks for fish. And often where the fishing is best you cannot see the fishermen at all. "There is a lot of fishing going on," said the ranger at World's End State Park in Pennsylvania, "and they are catching a lot of fish." He pointed to a broad, shallow pool, perhaps 100 yards long, on one small trout stream. Beside the pool is a well-traveled bank marked with many footprints. "It's mostly night fishing," he said.
Below a bridge, near the outlet of Neversink Reservoir, it was possible to count half a hundred fish feeding in the early evening. There were suckers and shiners, but there were trout in there, too. On the great, sloping, grass-covered wall of the reservoir two deer came down to drink. On the edge of the Forest Preserve at Stratford, at the margins of dry thickets, there were quail turning bewilderedly among the rocks of a dry creek that formerly flowed into West Canada Creek. A quarter of a mile away a weasel eased itself slowly out of a tangle of sticks beside a culvert, as much at home as it would be in a farmyard, and apparently as well fed.
"Drought has not hurt most game." said Albert Bromley, the New York Conservation Department's director of education. "Small game has even been helped by the dry. warm spring and summer." All through the drought country the dry nest-and-brood season has increased the ruffed-grouse population. Because of the drought, farmers delayed their cutting season, with the result that the young birds were more capable of flying when cutting removed their protection. New York's ruffed-grouse season has been increased a full month—hopefully—but unless there are rains there will be no hunting at all.
After three years of limited hunting and relatively mild winters, the outlook for deer hunters is excellent, again provided there is going to be a deer season. Showers may dampen the woods enough to keep the fire hazard down, even if the drought remains. Fire-prevention officials say the drought tends to make fires worse, because of the underlying dryness. They burn deeply. Last fall, after a fire in the black dirt section of Orange County it was found the earth was burned several feet below the surface. Experts said it would be 50 years before anything could grow there.
New York's drought problems have always had far-reaching effects. The immense Forest Preserve was set aside because of fears of a drought 80 years ago, and this action launched the conservation movement. In 1881 the Summit Level of the Erie Canal began to go dry. The canal is higher in its 62-mile middle stretch than it is at either end. and the lock-free Long Level is fed only by mountain streams like Canada Creek from the Adirondacks. Public alarm grew because streamflow declined as the woods were cut down, mass meetings were held in New York City and the legislature was driven to pass the first forest administration act in the U.S. Rains eased the crisis in any event, but meanwhile Maine. New Hampshire, Minnesota and Wisconsin passed almost identical acts. Then in 1893 the Federal Government set aside the national forests modeled on the New York state preserve. In a sense, the magnificent chain of national forests and wilderness areas, 186 million acres, dates back to the drought that dried up Canada Creek and the Mohawk River. The Forest Preserve never became the unified woods ii was expected to be; private owners held title to almost half the land it enclosed; but as an incidental benefit, it created a broad, green belt across the mountains of the state—the biggest park in the U.S.. 2,551,000 acres, one-eighth of the total area of New York.
No such remedy for the current drought is likely to be attempted now. However closely trees and streamflow are related, no one believes any longer that woods alone will insure rainfall. Rain does not necessarily fall because trees grow; the trees are there because rain falls. "Water is like a living thing." wrote Charles Lee McGuinness in his classic U.S. Geological Survey Circular No. 114. The vast circulatory system known as the hydrologic cycle operates like the human bloodstream. Water evaporates wherever exposed to air, rises into the atmosphere, travels as part of air mass, is condensed when the air mass rises and falls as rain or snow. The impression that nothing is happening over a drought area is an illusion. On a hot summer afternoon water is rising into the atmosphere at an unbelievable rate, equal to 10 great Mississippi Rivers at the maximum flow recorded for the Mississippi. The water drawn aloft by evaporation falls again as rain in quantities that stagger imagination—4.8 trillion gallons a day over the U.S. as a whole. Seventy per cent of this returns to the atmosphere through evaporation. Some 1.2 trillion gallons flow into the oceans. An estimated 28% sinks into the earth and flows slowly seaward. Nobody knows how much is stored underground—probably as much as is stored above ground in lakes and rivers. And if no rain fell for three years the Great Lakes alone could theoretically provide all the water needs of the nation even at its present wasteful rate of use.
So the country is in no danger of drying up. And New York state is singularly fortunate even in this potential aquatic paradise. "Vast water resources and large use," runs the Geological Survey's appraisal. "Less than live per cent of watershed area developed so far." Two years ago, another inventory of U.S. water noted that New York shortages were still caused by delays in developing the water resources, rather than by lack of water on the land.
Driving along the empty roads through the drought country makes one want to add a little more to the equation. Whatever else the drought may prove, it has revealed how lifeless the country is when the Beaverkill and the Rondout and the Neversink and their tributaries are not flowing musically in the woods. Nobody has yet shown how streams can be developed for water supply and still flow as freely as ever, but the fate of the drought country makes it imperative that some way be discovered. Thaddeus Norris, the first American fly-fishing authority, wrote in Fishing in the Adirondacks back in 1864 that experience in the woods, from time to time, was necessary for human brains. "It is not sentiment," he said. "It is reality." Our physical frames benefit from the fresh air and good exercise, but the greater benefit is from "the new life, new thought, new spring which it gives to the intellectual organs." Perhaps we should follow old Thaddeus' advice, and stay in the woods in the hope that our brains will improve to the point where we can solve our problems—even the problem of conserving the wilderness.