News Stories

Water managers stretch resources, prepare for a long dry spell

Published Aug. 15, 2007

   At recent meetings of the North Carolina Drought Council, state and federal officials worked with local governments to prepare for the possibility of a long term drought. With conditions already matching or exceeding droughts of record that occurred in 1933, 1941, and 2002, forecasters were coping with the additional bad news that a La Nina cycle could result in a drier than normal winter. No guarantee of relief for long-term ground water conditions is in sight.

   Again and again, meeting participants expressed hope for a long, soaking tropical depression to come and hover over North Carolina—provided it stayed short of the killer floods plaguing other parts of the nation, or damaging hurricane winds.

   Jeff Orrock of the National Weather Service said that North Carolina needs to make up an overall deficit of 15 inches of rainfall over the next few months—“preferably not in a two day period of course!”

   On Thursday, August 23d, a number of new indicators and announcements emphasized the seriousness of the drought. The State Forestry Service imposed a state-wide burning ban due to numerous fires whose persistence and severity was being worsened by high temperatures. Governor Mike Easley asked for federal assistance to farmers whose crops are withering in the dry heat. The state also asked citizens statewide to cut back on water use by 20 percent. And municipalities across North Carolina are stepping up conservation measures, including mandatory water use restrictions.

   “Reservoirs are dropping by a foot about every ten days,” said State Drought Manager Woody Yonts. “It’s time for us all to work together.”

   Fortunately for North Carolina, working together is a good habit that many communities and agencies have been building for several years.

   Although all reservoirs are falling, Falls Lake on the Neuse River has extra attention from many stakeholders. As the main water supply for the City of Raleigh, and as the source of flows that augment the Neuse River for downstream communities, the long-range condition of the reservoir is of vital interest from Raleigh all the way to New Bern.

   Accordingly, Neuse River Basin stakeholders set aside time for their own drought management meeting. As water manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wilmington District, Terry Brown has the lead in carrying out the flow regime from the lake.

   “We have the responsibility of making sure that we do our utmost to see flows remain adequate in the main stem of the river, and that water quality stays healthy despite high temperatures. City water intakes for communities like Goldsboro depend on good flows in the river, and as far downstream as the Weyerhaeuser lumber plant near New Bern, adequate water flow is a factor in preventing salt water intrusion at the plant,” Brown explained.

   In normal conditions, flows from the dam at this time of the year would be at 260 cubic feet per second (cfs), dropping to about 184 cfs in November, as cooler temperatures and increased seasonal rainfall would be expected to improve natural conditions in the Neuse River.

   Rather than continuing to draw down the water balance in Falls Lake at the usual summer rate, Brown proposed a gradual step down of flows between August 27th and the beginning of November, preserving more water in the reservoir, and very gradually shrinking the downstream flows. He suggested reducing flows to 230 cfs by September first, to 205 cfs by mid-September, and to 184 cfs on October first. At each stage, Brown expected to gather weekly data from the Division of Water Quality and downstream communities to make sure that they were able to accommodate the changes.

   “It’s a balancing act,” Brown said. “We are aiming to stretch out our capacity in the reservoir for weeks longer, yet avoid negative impacts downstream from a sudden big change in flows.”

   The consensus of stakeholders at the meeting was that this regime could greatly alleviate concerns.

  “It’s impressive how far this modest adjustment can extend water supply and maintain water quality,” said John Morris, Director of Water Resources for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “It greatly reduces the risk of exhausting storage.”

   The lowered releases would slow the drawdown of the lake so that the projected low would be reached in mid January 2008, as opposed to late November of 2007. “That takes us a lot closer to the turnaround in water supply we usually see with winter rains by February,” Brown said.

   Of course all hope for a significant, soaking rain sometime well before those dates. “We can change the flows again if Mother Nature gives us a break in the form of a major rainfall,” Brown said. “We have seen that happen before.” However, Brown and most climatologists agree that a big rain event may pull the reservoirs back up to ‘FULL’ but more frequent, steady rains will be needed to recharge ground water and move the region away from the ever present need to plan for the next dry spell.