ITHACA, NY – When the news dropped that the City of Ithaca could be out of water in 30 days thanks to this historic drought,  many residents were understandably concerned and confused.

Below are answers to some of the most pressing questions we’ve heard people ask about the water shortage:

Why did the city wait until we only had 30 days of water left?

“Really, the reservoir holds 30 days worth of water. There’s nothing we can do to increase that. It’s really a situation where we sound the alarm when it looks like the flow into the reservoir is starting to approach what we’re withdrawing,” Ithaca Chief of Staff Dan Cogan said. “If we started it sooner, it wouldn’t necessarily give us more than 30 days, we’d just be sending more water over the dam.”

“The only reason for starting early is to give people a little more of a chance to develop whatever systems they have. But we don’t necessarily want people to stop watering expensive plantings way in advance and letting the plants die if its not really needed.”

Assistant Superintendent of Water and Sewer Erik Whitney said that on Monday, the flow did fall short, but the Monday rain restored about a week’s worth of water to the reservoir.

“If we get about 3/4 of an inch to an inch a week over our watershed, that will be enough to keep us in business indefinitely,”  Whitney said. “If we don’t get that rainfall, we could be in trouble within a 30-day window.”

Another challenge will be when the influx of people at the end of summer, when students, faculty and vacationers return. Cogan estimated they would draw an additional half a million gallons of water per day (the city normally uses three to three-and-a-half million gallons).

What happens if the reservoir is drained?

Cogan said there are two primary contingency plans being looked into.

The first involves mutual assistance between the three water systems — Ithaca’s, Cornell’s and Bolton Point. The three are already linked to some degree and able to move water between the systems.

If Ithaca’s reservoir ran completely dry, water could be transferred from the other systems so all three would have at least some water flowing, but each system would have less than is normal.

That’s why conservation is important — since we have very limited control over the supply of water, changes need to be made to reduce the demand for it.

“Possibly there would have to be a county-wide water conservation requirement. We’d have to try to reduce non-essential uses of water,” Cogan said. “Ultimately the most important use for water, even though most people think about it for drinking, one concern is always about fire protection. That becomes paramount.”

The second — more expensive option — would be to bring in a portable filtration system and park it by Cayuga Lake, where it could filter the lake water to be pumped into the system.

Why are some people still experiencing discolored water?

Cogan presented two things that could be contributing to the seemingly random appearance and prevalence of discolored water.

First is that different water mains around the city are made with different materials. Cast iron mains, for example, are more likely to rust, and this is exacerbated by the warm weather. Combined with changes in water velocity due to current demand in an area, this can cause rust residue to be scoured off into the water.

“When the flows increases in a certain area, they could increase because someone’s doing a fire test, or maybe just a bunch of people in a particular area who are using water at the same time. That again increases the velocity in the pipes and that can scour the rust and lift it up,” Cogan said.

“You get a slug of the rustier colored water, it moves through the system, so some people don’t experience that… If you don’t happen to have the tap turned on when that discolored water moves through the system, then you aren’t going to see it. Maybe your neighbor will see it and then a half hour later they won’t see it but somebody a block over will,” Whitney said. “It’s not something you’re going to see everywhere simultaneously.”

Whitney said that about 90 percent of the water in the system is clear, and the remaining percentage either has residue stirred up from the pipes or manganese from the groundwater currently being drawn on. The city is taking steps to deal with the manganese at the treatment plant but at the same time, the manganese is affecting corrosion inhibitors.

“It’s a dynamic situation. We want to make sure it’s minimized, but it probably will be ongoing until we get some pretty steady rainfall and we’re taking surface waters rather than having the groundwater predominate,” Whitney said.

“Every year during warm weather, generally in the peripheries of the system, we experience some degree of turbid water and that is attributable to over a century old. We’ve got over a 100 miles of pipe and about a third of our pipes are in excess of 100 years old — cast iron pipes. So they do have years of mineral deposits and rust,” Whitney explained.

He went on to say that areas on the outside edges of the water system would be more likely to have a more persistent problem. This is because law requires pipes to be able to feed a fire hose, but day-to-day demand in small neighborhoods at the ends of the system don’t require nearly as much water. This low flow state leads to more build up, which the city cleans out periodically.

Is the city going to pay for water or reimburse water bills?

“That’s not being discussed,” Cogan said. “That’s not something the city can take on. Generally, the health department says the water is meeting the current standards as far as they know. We are still working with them and giving them weekly tests and that sort of thing. I think everyone’s pushed to the limit right now because of the drought conditions as well, trying to prepare for contingencies and emergencies if things do get worse. It’s a little bit of a perfect storm.”

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Cogan and Whitney both urge people to continue calling the Water and Sewer department as soon as possible if you’re experiencing the colored water issue. Both reported that they’ve been able to get city staff to flush the hydrants, and that has generally been effective in resolving the issue, at least temporarily.

On Friday, the city released another update, including a detailed report showing water levels in the reservoir for the weeks of July 14 through July 28.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.