Drought is behind water woes, says Ithaca, urging conservation

“If it’s yellow, let it mellow” is just one of the water-saving tips from the City of Ithaca this week, though not in those words. City officials say Ithaca’s “water supply is critically low due to the severe drought conditions,” and that’s behind ongoing problems with brown water.

“Water has been flowing down Six Mile Creek into the reservoir at a lower rate than water is being drawn into the City’s water treatment system,” says the latest bulletin from the City of Ithaca on Wednesday afternoon. “As a result, the water level in the reservoir has been dropping.”

"How are we to filter this or wash with it," wonders Ithaca resident Michelle Courtney Berry. Photo provided.

“How are we to filter this or wash with it,” wonders Ithaca resident Michelle Courtney Berry. Photo provided.

The low water levels at the reservoir mean more minerals get into the municipal water supply than usual, so the City’s new water filtration system needs to be adjusted. “Water plant staff are continuing to adjust levels of sodium permanganate and corrosion inhibitor in the water supply to reduce the amount of discoloration,” and staff are “flushing water from hydrants to clear the discoloration in response to complaints, and will continue to do so as needed.”

“We are confident that we can eventually get the treatment processes dialed in,” City of Ithaca Chief of Staff Dan Cogan tells us this morning. “Other communities, like Groton, have struggled with similar issues and eventually got the balance right. It is an iterative process.”

In the meantime, residents are frustrated with water they say they can’t use to wash their clothes, or cook with, or drink. “This is a situation that people on wells all across our region have to deal with,” says Cogan. “Worst case is that people will continue to have brownish water. It’s definitely an inconvenience, and it can lead to higher costs for people if they choose to purchase bottled water, but it is an unfortunate reality.”

City officials are urging residents and businesses to conserve water as best they can, even to the point of suggesting people capture the water when they let the tap run to clear discolored water from the pipes.

City of Ithaca’s conservation plea:

1. Do not hose down sidewalks, patios or driveways.
2. Stop watering lawns.
3. Use hand watering for valuable plants and vegetable gardens, and water in the morning or evening.
4. If you run your water before using it for cooking, drinking, or showering/bathing, capture the unused water in a bucket and use for watering plants or filling toilet tanks.
5. Do not run washing machines or dishwashers until you have a full load.
6. Take shorter showers: If you normally take a 5 minute shower, take a 4 minute shower for an immediate 20% water reduction. Better yet, take a 3 minute shower for a 40% reduction.
7. Turn off the water in the shower while lathering or shampooing.
8. Install low flow shower heads or other water saving devices.
9. Use bath water to fill your toilet tank.
10. Flush toilets every other time if possible.
11. Do not leave water running while washing dishes, brushing your teeth or shaving.
12. Try to reduce your water usage as much as possible, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.

“I hope that people can understand that these are extraordinary and very dire circumstances,” says Common Council alderperson Seph Murtagh, who represents the Second Ward.

The City promises to conserve water, as well. They will be watering plantings on the Commons “with water from the lake or water flushed from hydrants that would otherwise have been wasted,” watering the municipal golf course with water from the lake, and reducing hours at the splash fountain at Stewart Park.

Ithaca officials say Cornell University, which gets its water “from Fall Creek near the Cornell Plantations, is having similar problems.” Cornell has also asked its staff and residents to conserve water, “but the situation has only gotten more serious for their system in the last three weeks.” Taughannock Falls, one of the area’s most famous and most accessible waterfalls, has also slowed to barely a trickle this week, for the first time in several years.

According to a statement from the City, “Typical flows in Six Mile Creek for this time of year are 14 to 20 cubic feet per second (cfs),” but “the flow rate has been far below typical for the past two months, and the flow rate into the reservoir dropped below the critical level of 4 cfs last week, which is the amount that we are withdrawing from the reservoir.” Rain on Monday temporarily increased the flow above the critical level, but “the forecast for the next ten days is for less than an inch of rainfall.”

“If we don’t get some rain, then we have bigger problems on our hands,” says Cogan.

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