The Heat Is Online

Eastern U.S. Braces For Drought-Driven Economic Shocks

Extended Drought Strains Resources Along East Coast

The New York Times, April 21, 2002

By Andrew C. Revkin

The potent drought that has parched much of the East since last fall has communities from Maryland to Maine facing limits on new construction, higher water charges, restrictions on water use, and the prospect of many more dry months without relief.

If the drought drags on, possible delays in linking new housing or businesses to overburdened water systems could cause economic setbacks, water experts said. For the moment, no one has tallied the impacts, which are usually felt community by community, well by well.

Many water systems, including those in Frederick, Md.; Greensboro, N.C.; and many towns near Boston and around New Jersey, were straining to meet demand even before the dry spell settled in.

Increasingly, state and local rules require that developers show there is adequate water before new housing is built. In many places where growth has outstripped supplies, that is becoming a significant hurdle.

It is unlikely that relief will come soon. Federal meteorologists say there is less than an 8 percent chance that rainfall from now through July will end the drought in coastal Maine and Connecticut, Long Island, New York City, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, northern Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia.

In many other dry regions, the chance that the drought will end this summer is only slightly higher, according to the predictions by the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

But those predictions presume that conditions over the next few months will be typical for the time of year. Lately, nothing about the weather has been typical. Flow gauges in streams up and down the East Coast show record lows day after day.

Even scattered downpours like the ones that drenched parts of the East on Friday offer little relief.

The potential for damage to the economy is considerable. Vegetable and milk prices will rise as produce dwindles from farms in the Northeast. Restrictions on water use could hurt small businesses, forcing car washes, for example, to cut back their hours, or machine tool shops, which are often big users of water as a coolant, to reduce production, or causing well drillers to dig deeper for water, at higher cost. Some tourists might alter their vacations, avoiding the Northeast and its hotels.

So far, the economic damage has only been spotty and minor. Mike Saulle, owner of the Centre Ridge Nursery in Nutley, N.J., said yesterday that fewer landscapers were placing large orders for shrubs and trees. The New York State Restaurant Association said some restaurants were offering bottled water at half price and not serving tap water unless customers asked for it. The Philadelphia Suburban Corporation, a water company, reported that restrictions on water use had contributed to a slight decline in earnings.

Because of water restrictions, marinas on the Rockland County banks of the Hudson River have stopped offering boat-washing services to yacht owners, losing a significant source of revenue, employees said.

The drought in the Northeast, if it endures, would show up first in the national economic statistics as a rise in the Consumer Price Index, economists say. The increase in this inflation gauge would not be significant because most of the nation's food is grown elsewhere, they contend, but any increase in inflation just as the economy is recovering from recession could make Wall Street investors extra jittery about interest rates.