With the exception of the boisterous and breezy thunderstorm that ran through here last Friday, Otsego County has had little to no rain for the last several weeks, a relatively new problem for us here in what has long been touted as one of the wettest counties in the state. Though the storm was occasionally scary—downing trees, exuding earsplitting thunder and bursting with lightning—it was welcome, as our bright lime spring fields and meadows were on the verge of turning brown, our streams and lakes were losing their spring flows, and our gardens and orchards were not developing as sufficiently and beautifully as they should.
Abundant water, fresh water, is a tremendous asset to any town and county. It’s one of the most appealing features of Upstate New York, when compared to the rest of the country that is, as we know, pretty regularly fraught with drought and wildfires during the summer months. Fresh water, in fact, is a mere 1 percent of the world’s water, the rest being brine and salt. It is scarce, and necessary, especially to agricultural areas, and when there is no rain to replenish our wells and waterways we all suffer. The problem now is that our world is drying up, and we are seeing firsthand bits of life without water.
Last summer, 2022, was the third hottest summer in 128 years (2021 was the hottest on record for the U.S., exceeding the heat of 1936 by 0.01 degree); the summer of 2023 is expected to be warmer than that of 2022. In Otsego County, where we have averaged over the years a high temperature in July of 80 degrees, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is predicting a scorching, dry summer, with less than average rainfall as well as high heat.
This is possible trouble, and it just might be time now to think ahead.
Conservation of water is imperative when it comes to threats of wildfires and drought. Even though Otsego County is among the most water-filled spaces on our planet, it, too, can—and will—dry up during extensive rainless days and nights. We have seen this in the past two summers, and we have been lucky enough so far to avoid the major disasters such as wildfires—spontaneous, uncontrolled fires in a natural woodland, grassland or prairie—that have plagued the rest of the country. (Those fires are already raging in Missouri, Michigan, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, Montana, Tennessee, California and neighboring parts of Canada.) While there have been instances of wildfires in New York State in the past—April’s three-county brush fire should have served as a real wake-up call—and there is nothing burning around us right now, the last few days of smoke in our usually pure Otsego County air is proof positive that there is a real danger of air pollution from the active wildfires to the northwest, which began late last week in Ontario and Quebec.
So it becomes clear that we must save our water, not only for ourselves and our farms but for protection from possible fires that result from low rainfall, high heat, high humidity and the occasional, often mistakenly welcomed, intense lightning storms. While we all like to believe that our long history of abundant water will go on forever, the reality of a warming and drying planet means we might no longer be able to remain complacent in the face of obvious signs of change. Scorched lawns and fields in early June are decidedly not normal for Otsego County, and detectable air pollution here is largely unknown, but when the Department of Environmental Conservation issues an “air quality alert,” as it did this week, we must recognize that the era of abundance and complacency—and isolation from the problems of the rest of the world—may be drawing to a close.