A fire hydrant near the Industrial and Systems Engineering building and Southside Commons. Bethlehem is cancelling its fire hydrant flushing program to conserve water after being placed under drought watch. (Sam Barney Gibbs/BW Staff)

Watch your water: Lehigh Valley put on drought watch


After a summer of little rain across northeastern Pennsylvania, 36 counties, including those that make up the Lehigh Valley, have been placed under drought watch by the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Commonwealth Drought Task Force. 

Ed Boscola, director of Bethlehem’s Department of Water and Sewer Resources, said a drought watch is the first and lowest level of drought emergencies. 

“Under a drought watch, the DEP lets everyone know that water levels are getting low and asks for voluntary conservation measures,” Boscola said. “The next level is a drought warning and as the levels get higher, voluntary measures are replaced by mandatory ones.” 

According to a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection press release, the state is asking residents on drought watch to decrease their individual water usage by 5 to 10%.

According to the release, the department is asking water suppliers in these counties to monitor their supplies and update drought contingency plans as well.

DEP Acting Secretary Ramez Ziadeh said in the release conditions in the affected areas have improved due to recent rain, but the drought watch will not be lifted until significant precipitation continues over several months.

To educate the public on measures they can take to conserve water, Boscola said The Department of Water and Sewer Resources posted suggestions on social media and their website detailing specific measures individuals can take.

The measures included not washing cars, only watering lawns when absolutely necessary and other routine measures that can reduce water usage.

In addition, Boscola said the City of Bethlehem has decided to cancel its fire hydrant flushing program, an annual program that involves routine flushing of fire hydrants throughout the entire city.

The DEP press release included additional strategies that drought watch county residents can take to save water. Some strategies are using dishwashers and washing machines less frequently, checking for and repairing household leaks, and repurposing rainwater using a rain barrel.

Dork Sahagian, a professor of earth and environmental sciences, said it is possible the recent drought watch warning could have been triggered by changes in weather patterns across the U.S.

“As you look west, there is a very serious drought,” Sahagian said. “Most of our weather comes from the west and the serious drought is having influences on us, but this may be overrated somewhat by Gulf of Mexico moisture.” 

Although a drought watch warning for the Lehigh Valley indicates necessary changes for regional water consumption habits, the area is in better shape to meet this task than many others across the country.

On a national scale, Sahagian said the entire state is fortunate to be located in a “hydrologically benign” location, meaning water is typically not as much of a concern as it is in other states.

Karen Pooley, director of the environmental policy design program and a political science professor, said the Lehigh Valley, in comparison to the rest of the state, has been fortunate enough to not be “anxious” about water availability.

“We are entering the drought watch from a lucky standpoint in that regard,” Pooley said. “However, as we watch what is going on everywhere, it is in everyone’s interest to be more careful about how we use water.”

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