A map of the state of Pennsylvania that outlines all of the counties. The entire map is highlighted in yellow, indicating a drought watch.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday announced a statewide drought watch. Credit: PADEP

Pennsylvania declares statewide drought watch for first time in 17 years

| June 16, 2023


Though it might be raining in parts of Pennsylvania today, don’t be fooled: It’s been so dry that Pennsylvania on Thursday issued its first statewide drought watch in 17 years — a signal of a more widespread condition facing the larger Delaware River Basin.

The watch is the lowest alert on the drought scale — a drought warning and then a drought emergency would come next. For now, the watch means only a call for voluntary measures to curb water consumption.

Residents and businesses are encouraged to reduce their nonessential water use by 5 to 10 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which announced the watch.

The scant rainfall in the state fits an overall pattern in the larger river basin, which includes New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, according to a presentation made last week at a meeting of the Delaware River Basin Commission.

Amy Shallcross, the commission’s manager of water resource operations, noted that year-to-date rainfall in the basin is usually 17 inches. So far this year, it’s only been 12 inches.

She said the region appears to be following the same pattern as it did during the drought of record in 1965. One indicator: On June 7, the streamflow in Trenton, N.J., reached a record low for the day based on 109 years of recordkeeping, she said.

“Exceptionally dry” conditions

Ben Gelber, a meteorologist and an expert on the weather in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, said May and June have been “exceptionally dry.”

From May 1 to June 15, Stroudsburg, Pa., recorded 2.03 inches of rain, pushing the cumulative deficit for the year to 7 inches. Stroudsburg had its fourth driest May (.95 inch), and Mount Pocono recorded the driest May (.75 inch) on the Pocono Plateau since records began in 1901, he said.

This past winter, nor’easters that typically bring more substantial rain and snow were largely absent because of persistent high pressure over the southwest Atlantic, which deflected the jet stream and storm tracks north and west of Pennsylvania most of the season, he said.

“The comparatively dry winter of 2022-23 followed a very dry July-September 2022, which is when the seeds of the current drought began,” Gelber said. “The lack of snowfall and below-normal precipitation limited how much the groundwater supply could recharge heading into the growing season. Stroudsburg ended up with 23.3 inches of snow — half of the average — and Philadelphia had 0.4 inch.”

La Nina faded this spring, with a rapid transition to El Nino, its warmer-water tropical Pacific counterpart.

“However, a rare blocking pattern at high latitudes in the jet stream has placed the polar jet stream in an unusually contorted position for extended periods of time and unfavorable for widespread rainfall in Pennsylvania,” he said, adding, “Droughts are hard to break out of, and the dry pattern will likely continue despite a decent rain event today.”

Lack of rain is one measure of drought

Deborah Klenotic, a spokeswoman for the state DEP, said it was unclear how much rainfall would be needed to make a dent in the dry conditions. A Drought Task Force will assess statewide indicators at its next meeting on July 6.

The last time DEP issued a statewide drought watch was in April 2006.  Conditions continued to get dry until June, when significant rainfall  occurred and made up deficits, she said.

Drought declarations are not based on one indicator alone, such as precipitation. The DEP considers information from public water suppliers and data on four hydrologic indicators: precipitation, surface water (stream and river) flow, groundwater level and soil moisture.

There are normal ranges for all four indicators. DEP makes drought status recommendations after assessing departures from these ranges and comparing this information to historical data.

At this time, 18 public water suppliers are asking for voluntary water conservation in their communities.

For a map that is updated daily to show the status of each indicator for each county, see the USGS Pennsylvania drought condition monitoring website.

Ways to help

The low precipitation has dramatically increased the number of wildfires in Pennsylvania this year, according to state officials.

There have already been 1,400 wildfires reported statewide so far in 2023, compared to 1,036 in all of 2022. This year’s wildfires have burned more than 8,500 acres, compared to 2,700 acres in 2022.

“Water conservation, always a good practice, is especially helpful now as it’ll lessen potential future impacts on water supplies if rainfall continues to be scant this summer,” said the acting secretary of the DEP, Rich Negrin.

Among the DEP’s recommendations: Run the dishwasher and washing machine less often, and only with full loads; water your garden less often; skip washing your car and set up a rain barrel to be ready to repurpose rain when it does fall.

Shallcross had a suggestion of her own at last week’s DRBC meeting: Do a rain dance.

Among the elements of her basic guidelines for a rain dance: Sing and yell your rain chant while spinning around in circles.

The chant “should be rhymical and easy to say fast,” she said. “’D-R-B, D-R-B, What a wonderful place to be!’”

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.

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