How Dry We Are

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The water level of New York's Neversink Reservoir is extremely low

The famous fountains in New York's Central Park, drained for winter, remain dry. Farmers in the Midwest are literally praying for rain: the St. John Catholic Church in Spearville, Kansas is holding four special services this week to seek divine intervention. And folks in Maine are wondering if they'll ever get to run a guilt-free dishwasher cycle again.

Thanks to an unusually dry winter, the Eastern seaboard is suffering from what some experts are calling the most severe drought on record; at least five states have declared drought emergencies. And in the Midwest it's almost as bad; crops are withering for lack of rainfall, and reservoir levels have dropped to dangerously low levels.

And as bad as it is now, it's probably going to get worse as the weather gets warmer. Analysts at the U.S. Climate Prediction Center put most of the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest in the "Slow Improvement/Problems Persist" category, signaling what could be a tough, dry summer for swimming pools, dust-caked cars and thirsty lawns. "We're still hoping for some good rains in April," says Bryan Swistock, a water resources and conservation specialist at Penn State's school of Forestry Resources. "But we seem to be running out of time."

Is there anything we can do? First, says Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, in Lincoln, Nebraska, "we need to conserve water all the time, not just when we have droughts."

According to Svoboda, droughts are a natural and predictable part of the climate cycle, so we really shouldn't be so surprised when water supplies run low. Drought is something we can — and must — prepare for, he says, but getting ahead of the curve requires proactive thinking, and possibly expensive ventures like creating new reservoirs. If we don't take droughts more seriously, Svoboda predicts, the strain on water supplies will just keep getting worse.

Okay, but what about easing the effects of this drought — right now? Happily for budding conservationists, there are a number of steps you can take to help preserve water. Here, with thanks to Bryan Swistock, is a quick rundown:

One: Don't take it outside. Most states with drought emergencies have already banned "nonessential" water use — and that includes washing cars, watering lawns and filling the swimming pools. Why eliminate all these springtime activities? Because, explains Swistock, they use up huge amounts of water with literally no return (to the ground water supply).

Two: Think when you drink (or floss, or scrub). When you're doing your dishes, or brushing your teeth, or just running water into a glass, turn off the faucet when you're not actually using the water. Don't let the water keep running while you're examining your back molars or soaping up your dinner plates.

Three: Go for the full load. Running half-empty dishwashers and washing machines is a fast way to waste tons of water. Make sure you've stuffed everything you possibly can into the machine before you press the start button.

Four: Skip the prune fingers. This is not a time for daily baths. Instead, strive for shorter showers (and see Six for even more efficient personal hygiene.)

Five: Toilet train. Remember how your weird cousins from Northern California used to keep a brick in their toilet tank to reduce water flow? Remember how you thought they were crazy? Well, they might have been, but they were right about conserving water. "It does help to put bricks or a quart jug filled with gravel, for example, into the toilet tank," says Swistock. "A heavy item like that displaces a quart or more of water — and that's one less quart of water the toilet needs to refill itself." Once you've mastered water displacement, try another, even more challenging conservation measure: Don't flush every time. "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." It's not the most pleasant or appetizing of mantras, but water conservationists love it.

Six: It's all about hardware. Consider installing low-flow spigots on your shower heads, low-flow toilets in your bathrooms and a front-loading washer in your laundry room (it's a bit more expensive than the traditional machine, but you'll see immediate savings on energy bills, and you'll use up to 30 percent less water for each wash.)