Water levels in Lake Norman are running higher than usual this winter, in sharp contrast to the low levels experienced during the 2007-08 drought.
As of the first week of January, the lake was at 98.3 percent of full pond, prompting officials to lower the area's drought advisory from Stage 1 (voluntary conservation) to Stage 0 (a watch).
Duke Energy manages the lake as part of the Catawba-Wateree Hydro Project, comprised of 13 hydroelectric stations and 11 reservoirs. The project spans more than 200 river miles and encompasses approximately 1,700 miles of shoreline within nine counties in North Carolina and five counties in South Carolina.
"The Lake Norman water level is higher at this time due to significant rainfall in the upper Catawba River basin," said Duke Energy spokeswoman Rita Sipe. "As the largest reservoir on the system, more water can be stored in Lake Norman and then released over time as part of our lake management strategy."
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The targeted lake level for January is about 2 feet lower than the current readings, meaning that the shallow inlets surrounding the lake, which frequently would display dry areas during typical winters, are full of water this year.
Local boating experts have noticed the difference. "As you ride around the area, there is no question that the lake is higher than usual," said Bob Elliot, assistant director of the Lake Norman Marine Commission.
Elliot cautioned higher lake levels can have their downside, too. "They can be a problem for marine contractors accustomed to doing work over the winter months if they can't get their barges under the bridges due to the higher water levels."
According to the National Weather Service, in 2011 the Charlotte area received 44.52 inches of precipitation, almost 3 inches more than average and 8 inches more than 2010.
"Residents must keep in mind that Lake Norman is only one in a series of lakes which run from Lake James on the north to Lake Wateree on the south. We have to balance the levels of all those bodies of water. Therefore, while Lake Norman may be higher than usual, others in the chain are not," said Sipe.
The lakes on the chain feed Duke power stations, including the McGuire Nuclear Power Plant in Huntersville. The level of the water can be controlled to some extent at the dams near the power plants.
"We monitor the weather predictions constantly, and, for example, if we had good reason to believe we were going to get a major storm, we might actually lower the lake."
In the midst of the severe drought several years ago, a partnership known as the Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group was created to address lake level issues such as water use by large water users and entities with water intakes.
This group developed the drought advisory protocol, with procedures for reductions in water use during low water periods. Drought stages are determined by how much water is in the reservoirs; how much water is flowing into the reservoirs from creeks and streams and from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a government website that indicates what parts of the country are in a drought and how severe that drought is.
"Our charge is to manage the resources in total and to anticipate conditions collectively," said Sipe. "That's how lake level management decisions must be made."