A change in the atmospheric steering flow has brought rain to the Charlotte region several times over the past two weeks, but the area remains locked in a drought that will take a lot more precipitation to erase.
Severe drought conditions enveloped Mecklenburg and seven other nearby counties in late December, and officials say another 57 N.C. counties are suffering from moderate drought.
It’s the same story in South Carolina, where York, Chester and Lancaster are among seven counties in severe drought.
Hydrologists say the exceptionally dry weather has not gained a lot of attention because it came after the growing season, but they say that if average rainfall doesn’t return soon, the impact will be noticeable.
“At this point, public water supplies are fine in North Carolina,” says Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources.
“But if dry conditions continue,” he adds, “widespread impacts could quickly surface in 2013, when temperatures begin to increase and the growing season begins.”
The news has been better recently. It rained on seven of the last 15 days in December, and Charlotte’s rainfall for the month, 3.84 inches, was more than a half-inch above average.
But that was the first above-average rainfall month since September. Since then, rainfall in the city has been about 4 inches below average.
And precipitation in Charlotte for 2012 was nearly 8 inches below average. Or, to put it another way, the city’s 33.69 inches of rain was 80 percent of average.
The trend in recent days has improved.
More than a half-inch of rain fell Monday, and most places near Charlotte got nearly 2 inches Wednesday.
“We’ve had three decent events recently,” says Chris Horne, of the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C.
Horne says rainy weather at this time of year typically is caused by an “active” Southern jet stream.
“The atmosphere transports Pacific moisture into the Southeast when there’s an active Southern stream,” Horne says. “That hadn’t been the case until recently.”
Mecklenburg County, along with Cabarrus, Catawba, Cleveland, Gaston, Lincoln, Rutherford and Union counties, were moved into the “severe” drought status shortly before Christmas.
It’s the first time since February that any part of North Carolina has been classified that way.
Conditions are even worse in South Carolina, where parts of three counties are in the “exceptional” drought category – the worst status level.
While widespread water restrictions have not been put in place, authorities say they are taking some steps already.
“To extend available water supplies and maintain lake levels, many reservoir managers in North Carolina are allowing only minimum releases of water,” says George Galleher, an engineer with Duke Energy.
Reeder and others say residents should avoid unneeded use of water until conditions improve.
“When the temperatures rise in the spring and summer, the drought’s effects would be a lot more noticeable,” Horne says. “Hopefully, conditions will change by then.”