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Drought is draining region's streams

Average flows have hit all-time lows throughout western part of the state.

Bruce Henderson
bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

Streams across Western North Carolina have dropped to record lows as a drought now in its second year again tightens its grip on the region.

Monthly average flows hit all-time record lows for June and July at more than half of the U.S. Geological Survey's long-term gauges in the region. Low-water records have been set in the Catawba, Yadkin and Broad River basins.

The July average at one measuring point on the Catawba, in McDowell County, was 38 percent lower than the previous record for the month set in 2002.

Stream levels are important because they determine how much water feeds the reservoirs most Charlotte-region cities rely on. Low flows magnify pollutants, making it harder for sewage treatment plants to dilute their wastes. Drought is tough on fish and other aquatic life, reducing not only water to swim in but oxygen in the water.

Jerad Bales, director of the geological survey's N.C. Water Science Center, said more than a year of dry weather has lowered groundwater, which provides a good part of the water in streams.

Despite increasing rain, he said, “the groundwater never really recovered this winter.” The dense forests of the mountains also draw a lot of water from the ground, he said, indirectly affecting streams.

Following the 1999-02 drought, Bales said, it took groundwater two to three months to recover, but streams needed six months.

Eighteen N.C. counties – including Gaston, Lincoln, Catawba and the southwestern tip of Mecklenburg – had gained ground on the drought during the winter and spring. Now they're back in the driest stage of drought, according to the widely watched U.S. Drought Monitor. The seasonal outlook does predict improvement through October.

Groundwater levels in the western end of the state are 2 to 5 feet below normal for this time of year, the geological survey says. Most Catawba River reservoirs that supply much of the Charlotte area are close to their normal ranges.

Forty-four Gaston County farmers have enrolled in a state program that helps them find drought-proof sources of water.

Some of those who had relied on streams to water their livestock are now drilling wells, said Danon Lawson of the Gaston County Natural Resources Department. Participating farmers agree to fence off the streams, keeping cows out and the water cleaner.

“The drought has actually awakened some awareness of water-quality programs,” he said.

Public water systems are paying more attention to the drought, the N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council learned at its meeting Thursday. Fifty-four percent of the 660 systems had water restrictions in place last month, compared to 12 percent a year ago.

Unlike many cities, Morganton draws its water straight from the Catawba River instead of from reservoirs. But water resources director Don Danford said a low weir has kept pumps humming this summer.

“The only way we're in trouble is if (upstream) Lake James goes dry,” he said, “and then everybody is in trouble.”

Farther west, the French Broad River in Asheville on Sunday reached its lowest level since at least 1895.

“There are places in the river that are the lowest I've seen it and stuff coming out of the water – rocks, bridge pylons, truck tires and washing machines that were buried there for years,” said Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper.

Drought isn't all bad, he said.

Lack of rain washes less sediment into the river, so the French Broad is unusually clear. And low water means less to dilute pollution – but leaves fewer places for smallmouth bass to hide.

The fishing's great, Carson said.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

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