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Drought invades Charlotte region

Cyclists on Clark's Creek Greenway in northeast Charlotte ride by a nearly dry creek bed. Clark’s Creek’s flowing waters are usually about 12 inches deep.
Cyclists on Clark's Creek Greenway in northeast Charlotte ride by a nearly dry creek bed. Clark’s Creek’s flowing waters are usually about 12 inches deep. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Little rain and an abnormally hot summer have sent the Charlotte region into its highest drought stage in more than three years, and residents could face mandatory water restrictions by summer’s end.

The dry spell started in May when it rained only once in Charlotte, instead of the average nine times. And there have been more days that were 90 degrees and hotter than Charlotte traditionally averages for the whole year.

While the drought isn’t as advanced in other areas, it is creeping northeast to Durham and southeast to Rockingham.

“Recent high temperatures coupled with extremely dry conditions has left most of the region with stressed crops,” said Georgia Love of the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Affairs. “Some areas have received very limited rainfall for the last six weeks, and crops are in desperate need of relief.”

In South Carolina, the drought spans from the Piedmont to the coast and covers more than 60 percent of its counties.

The Catawba basin, which runs from the North Carolina mountains to Columbia, is at the first stage of a water-saving plan. If reservoir storage and streamflow continue to fall, the area could move to the second of the five stages, and water conservation steps will become mandatory.

Charlotte follows a regional drought management plan used to conserve the limited water supply. The Catawba River provides drinking water for over 800,000 people and delivers 99 million gallons of water daily, according to the city’s water department, as well as water to cool Duke Energy’s Catawba Nuclear Station and Allen Steam Station.

Currently, residents from Charlotte to Winston-Salem, are being asked to voluntarily conserve water. That includes limits on car washing and watering grass.

“We are asking the community to conserve water and energy as we enter the height of the summer season and the typically drier fall period,” said Ed Bruce of Duke Energy, the Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group coordinator.

Mandatory measures loom

If the drought worsens enough to require mandatory conservation, the city’s water customers won’t be allowed to water lawns on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Odd-numbered addresses could water their lawns on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Even-numbered addresses could do so on Thursdays and Sundays.

The last time the mandatory measures were put in place was September 2011.

In 2007-2008, Charlotte suffered its worst drought. It lasted more than a year, leaving Charlotte with a nearly 15-inch rainfall deficit in 2007.

In response, then-Gov. Mike Easley signed into law changes that included the creation of the Drought Management Advisory Council and ordering 55 municipal water systems, including several in the Charlotte region, to enact water-conservation measures.

If Charlotte goes to mandatory restrictions, citizens risk penalties for misusing water. But the water department says that when drought conditions persist, its main goal is conservation and it will hand out fines only when necessary.

The city ordinance allows for a $100 fine if a violation is issued for a first offense, said a spokesperson. Penalties increase for repeat violations or for violations during higher drought stages.

Temperature trends concerning

On average, Charlotte sees 35 days where temperatures hit 90 degrees or higher each year. With plenty of summer left, the city has already seen 36 days at that temperature.

The record for days above 90 degrees in one year is 88, set in 1954.

The Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group, made up of 41 organizations, decided to declare stage one conditions on Monday after examining the trigger trends.

“We wanted to be proactive in making the community aware of increased drought conditions and ask customers to be mindful of water use,” said Barry McKinnon, Mooresville Public Utilities director. “The sooner we start conserving, the better for our region as we work together to preserve our shared water resources.”

Temperatures in Charlotte will be partly cloudy in the mid-90s this weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Lack of rain means low lake levels

The lack of rain means that lake levels are below normal. Those low stream flows are also leading to depletion of the reservoirs in the Catawba basin.

Because of the drought, Duke Energy has reduced downstream flow releases and recreational flow hours.

“Duke Energy is asking the community to be mindful of its water use and to consider conserving energy which also saves water,” Duke spokeswoman Jennifer Jabon said. “Lake neighbors who withdraw water from the lakes for irrigation are asked to voluntarily limit lawn watering to Tuesdays and Saturdays.”

Conservation tips

The city of Charlotte asks customers to take these voluntary conservation steps:

▪ Do not wash vehicles at home; use commercial car wash locations that recycle water.

▪ Limit landscape watering of no more than 1 inch of water per week, including rain.

▪ Refrain from outdoor water use during the day (from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to reduce evaporation losses.

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