Without rain, low river levels might soon mean water restrictions

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Despite heavy downpours Monday night, the Midstate is still very dry, causing concern for communities like Dover.

York County townships sent out voluntary water conservation notices Tuesday, as water levels for tributaries and the Susquehanna River run low.

Now groups that monitor the river are considering conservation steps of their own.

Steve Oliphant has seen a lot of lows. “I’ve been guiding on the river since 1972,” he said, steering his pontoon boat around City Island.

This isn’t the worst he’s seen, but, yeah, it’s pretty low.

Oliphant, owner of kayak and canoe rental company Susquehanna Outfitters, said he hasn’t seen it impact business much.

“It affects us in terms of which sections of the river we can use,” he said, “but I don’t think it discourages people. Actually, I think it opens the river up to a broader spectrum of people.”

The shallow water, just a couple feet deep in places, makes the river safer for younger and more inexperienced boaters, Oliphant said.

But this is just the start of what could be a real problem: The river is flowing at 5,000 cubic feet per second — about half of the average. And that’s rare for this time of year.

“Only 12 percent of the flows for this day, July 26, have been below 4,900-5,000 cubic feet per second,” manager of planning and operations for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) John Balay said.

The SRBC has been working in recent days with its drought coordinating committee. They’ll decide whether to suggest some kind of water use restrictions — voluntary at first.

New York, also home to the Susquehanna, issued a drought watch a couple weeks ago.

“And they typically come in three levels — watch, warning and emergency,” Balay said.

To make matters worse, the basin is several inches behind compared to average rainfall. “It’ll take some sustained rainfall events of some significance to help up catch back up,” Balay said.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection plans to convene its drought task force, comprised of a number of other state agencies, a week from now. They’ll look at conditions and make recommendations to the department and the governor.

The group also points to voluntary conservation methods as a way to help head off more serious regulations.

Dry creeks, to the point where even small paddle-powered boats can’t float, make conditions worse.

“The little tributaries that are feeding it and the other watersheds in the area are drying up,” said Mary Gibson, manager of Blue Mountain Outfitters, “and we’re getting business from a lot of them.”

Monday’s rains helped, especially in areas outside the Midstate that feed into the river, but it will take much more to get back to normal.

“If we don’t get a tropical system that sets up, or any kind of sustained precipitation events in the next two to four weeks,” Balay said, “I would expect that those discussions are starting to happen on a more frequent basis.”

Until then, Oliphant plans to enjoy the shallows.

“The water’s warm and really clear,” he said. “It’s a playground. It’s a beautiful playground.”

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