ITHACA, NY – Tompkins County is facing its most severe state of drought since at least 2000.

As of July 12, 99.35 percent of Tompkins county is classified in the “D2” range of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. This is the first time since the site started tracking data in 2000 that the majority of the county has been classified as at least D2.

D2 refers to “severe drought” with possible impacts indicated as: crop or pasture losses likely, water shortages common and water restrictions imposed. It is the third highest of five listed drought levels.

The Monitor reports that farmers near Syracuse, which is just outside of the severe drought zone, reported their corn leaves curl and were irrigating heavily if they had the capacity.

Here in Ithaca, officials have attributed at least part of the reason for the discolored water issue to the added strain on water reserves caused by the dry summer.

The good news is that the Drought Monitor also labels the drought in this area as short term, lasting less than six months.

In the short run, however, it doesn’t look like there’s much relief in sight. The National Weather Service’s extended forecast indicates low chance of precipitation until at least Monday, which has a 60 percent chance of rain.

The Tompkins area dealt with long-term, widespread mild-to-moderate drought levels in 2012, and shorter droughts in 2011, 2005 and 2001, according to the data.

Dryest on record

In a press release, a Cornell Ph.D. student in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, James Knighton, weighed in on the situation. He said that while he initially believed the low-flow in local streams to be related to the low snowfall, simulations indicated it was in fact the dry summer season.

“In fact, according to Art DeGaetano, director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell, rainfall from March through June of this year is the lowest on record. The winter precipitation was also low, about 75 percent of normal,” Knighton said in the release.

“Big rainfalls would help some, but usually these types of events bring too much rain too quickly so that additional water will run off into the streams providing short-term high flows – or even flooding – without necessarily recharging the groundwater,” he added.

The light winter and dry summer have doubtless led some to wonder if climate change is at work. Here’s what Knighton had to say in the release:

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to attribute any one season’s weather to climate change. What we can say is that climate change is setting-up conditions that will make events like this past winter more likely.”

(Image courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.