Rain is hit-and-miss in Mecklenburg

As rain poured on uptown one day last week, Debby Grier looked at converging clouds over her family's Steele Creek farm and saw gaps of blue.

Only a few drops fell, nothing more than a “dust-settler.”

“When they're talking on TV about strong thunderstorms and you can see them all around you – to the east and to the west – we're just getting enough to keep the dust down,” Grier said.

She lives in a sliver of southwest Mecklenburg that recently slipped back into the “exceptional” drought category, the state's worst. In June, that area – approximately from N.C. 160 to Lake Wylie – got less than two inches of rain, while most of the county received three to four inches. Parts of eastern Mecklenburg got more than five.

“It's frustrating,” Grier said. “We're dry. I don't know why we don't get the rain everyone else is getting.”

Neither do scientists.

Pat Tanner, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Greer, S.C., said there's no scientific explanation. Rain is entirely random. “It just so happens we're getting these hit-and-miss thunderstorms,” Tanner said.

July rain totals aren't out yet, but Tanner and other experts believe they'll show the same hit-and-miss patterns.

The current drought is 1 1/2 years old. Southwest Mecklenburg is the latest to be added to the “exceptional” drought category, joining most of neighboring Gaston and Lincoln counties. The rest of Mecklenburg remains under the second-to-worst “extreme” drought.

The forecast this week isn't promising, with highs today and Tuesday expected to reach the upper 90s – and little chance of rain until Thursday night, if then.

Late last week, the Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group said the basin that runs through multiple counties, including Mecklenburg, remains in a Stage 3 drought and urged members to continue limiting outdoor watering to once a week.

Ed Bruce, a Duke Energy official who coordinates the advisory group, said the isolated storms have provided some needed runoff in streams, but groundwater levels continue to decline and are still well below normal. “We have been able to keep the lake levels near the target levels, but other indicators show no sign of improvements,” Bruce said.

Mecklenburg's rainfall is 4.4 inches below normal for the year, following a 15-inch deficit in 2007. Along the Catawba-Wateree basin, the deficit is nine inches, though July rainfall appears to have helped conditions, Bruce said.

Without tropical storms, August rainfall is expected to be below average.

Not good news for Hugh Thompson, who keeps 30 beef cows in southwest Mecklenburg.

He needs to grow hay to feed his herd.

“It's dry and the hay won't grow without rain,” he said.

Fred Youngblood, a plumber by trade, once kept a herd of 30 beef cows at his house on John Price Road in Steele Creek. Last year, as the drought gripped most of the state, he began thinning his herd.

He's now down to six cows and six calves.

“I'm concerned I won't be able to feed them if we don't get any rain,” Youngblood said. “I still have a little grass for them to eat, but we haven't had any rain around here to speak of for weeks.”

His summer garden is browning, too, despite efforts to keep it quenched. And much of his land is brown. “There's still some green,” he said, “but if we don't get any rain in a couple of weeks, it'll all be brown.”