Editor’s note: This article went to print in Union County LocalSource prior to a drought warning being issued by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for 12 northern New Jersey counties. The warning was issued on Sept. 23. The area includes Union and Essex counties, and houses more than two thirds of the state’s population, or 6.2 million people. There are no mandatory water restrictions, but voluntary conservation efforts are encouraged by the DEP.
UNION COUNTY, NJ — The weather has been cooler as summer comes to a close and autumn begins to take hold. Families and friends have been out enjoying the cool and sunny weather for the past week, and currently the extended forecast calls for much of the same. But at least one person in New Jersey has been hoping for a few rainy days.
“I’ve been the state climatologist for 25 years, and I’m much happier when it rains,” said Dr. David Robinson with a bit of a chuckle.
Robinson is one of the few hoping for more moisture in New Jersey because it has been too dry for too long, and northern New Jersey reservoirs are currently just over 50 percent capacity, which is about 25 points below the 75-percent average.
“I want timely rain,” Robinson said with a laugh. “I don’t want to be sitting out in Rutgers stadium on a Saturday afternoon in the pouring rain. But yea, we need rain.”
Robinson is a professor in the geography department at Rutgers University and is the New Jersey state climatologist. He is also a member of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Internal Drought Task Force and is a member or contributor to several more committees on various aspects of climate science.
“If you go by the standard nomenclature of the national drought monitor, northern New Jersey is in a moderate drought classification,” he said. “Call it a minor drought. Call it a moderate drought. It doesn’t matter. The fact is we have not had an abundance of precipitation for quite some time. And with that there are concerns, for everything from brush fires to water resources to agricultural business.”
According to Robinson, the latest numbers available as of press time show Union County has had 7.7 inches of rainfall in the past 90 days, which is 6 inches less than what is considered “normal.”
“Put another way, we have missed almost a month and a half of normal rain” during that 90-day span, Robinson said.
The problem began in earnest last April and May, according to Robinson.
“May of this year was the third driest statewide in 121 years of record keeping,” he said, noting the records go back to 1895. “We were really getting concerned. The saving grace of all of this was that June was the fourth wettest June in 121 years. Thank goodness for that, because come July, August and September, we have been below average. Without that wet June, we would have been talking weeks ago, and we definitely would have been talking about restrictions by now.”
It takes a lot for forced restrictions to be put in place, Robinson noted, saying a “drought watch” comes before restrictions.
“A drought watch is just a heads up,” he said. “Things got dry. At times I’m involved in helping make those recommendations. But when it gets to a warning or an emergency, when restrictions are put in place, often times that’s done by the governor. We are just kind of behind the scenes right now, just keeping an eye on things.”
Robinson said the state is not even currently in a watch, but that one is not all that far off if it continues to stay dry.
“The DEP divides the state into six regions so they can declare a watch for one and not all,” he said. “Another week or two, when we have limited rain, and it would not surprise me if that becomes part of the discussion. And right now, the outlook for the next week or two is not looking great for abundant precipitation.”
With the exception of reservoirs in northern New Jersey, Robinson says the state is in pretty good shape, but the dry weather has kept him vigilant.
“The reservoirs for United Water are about half full. Average is around 77.5 percent full for this time of the year. They are running about 25 percent below average. The rest of the state is 5 to 10 percent low,” he said.
But just how bad could it get?
“Just talk to the folks in California right now,” Robinson said. “This summer they have done a pretty good job of increasing their conservation, but at the same time it comes with an enormous impact. When a drought comes upon you, it’s an everyday thing. Every time you’re not able to turn on your sprinklers, which frankly is the least of our worries but it’s not to be dismissed, there is a problem. You also have to think of the economic drains of a drought. I would not diminish the economic impact on any horticulture business. Every industry can be affected by a drought if there is no water.”
The current big concern is the coming winter, because if we “enter next spring in a deficit,” Robinson said, “than I start getting nervous.”
“In a normal winter, about 20 to 25 percent of our precipitation falls as snow. What we really care about in the winter is rainfall, because most of the moisture is delivered to us in the form of rain,” he said, noting that about ten inches of snowfall is equal to about one inch of rain.
But these things can turn around very quickly, Robinson said.
“In a matter of weeks you can go from famine to feast. We did it with Floyd in 1999. We are multiple inches under where we should be, and if we could just return to the normal pattern, an inch a week is the average, and if we could knock out four inches of rain in the next four weeks, that would be a good, good start. And if we maintain that through the winter we are in great shape.”
The good news, Robinson said, is that the high water consumption months are coming to an end, as the demand for water by both plants and consumers declines as the weather cools, allowing reservoirs to not decline as rapidly.
“And it provides a better chance to start replenishing once rain returns,” he said. “Rain goes a longer way during the cool season to filling up the groundwater, rivers and streams and ultimately filling up our reservoirs.
There is other good news, Robinson said.
“The beach communities probably had a great summer,” he said with a chuckle. “It did not rain on a weekend this summer except the last weekend in June. And I was at the beach that weekend. I did not want it to rain then.”
An ironic “act of God” rained down on Robinson that weekend in June, and another is just around the corner.
“In 1995, it took the pope coming to New Jersey to make it rain. When the pope delivered his mass at Giants Stadium, it was in a rainstorm. I remember because my wife was there, and that was a very dry year. And with that rain and a few other storms we got out of the negative. But I am not wishing rain upon the pope or anybody hoping to see him later this week.”
Robinson apparently doesn’t always hope for rain. Just most of the time.