Our Water

Are we ready for another drought?

In 2007, a worst-in-a-century drought stranded boats in Lake Wylie. Future droughts could bring the Catawba River to a breaking point, studies found. After two record droughts, water managers crafted a plan that they say can stretch water supplies to about 2100.
In 2007, a worst-in-a-century drought stranded boats in Lake Wylie. Future droughts could bring the Catawba River to a breaking point, studies found. After two record droughts, water managers crafted a plan that they say can stretch water supplies to about 2100. Staff Photographer

The new century opened with a record drought that strained water supplies across North Carolina. Water managers spent the next 13 years trying to learn from those desperate days.

“We learned that conditions change really fast,” said Charlotte Water director Barry Gullet. “And we learned that we have to respond.”

New water lines snaked from one community to another, to serve as emergency connections in dry times. Utilities crafted drought-response plans, under state orders.

“We’re much, much stronger today than we were in 2007-2008. North Carolina is such a water-rich state that nobody had really thought about drought,” said the state’s assistant environment secretary, Tom Reeder, a former water resources chief.

Reeder’s agency relies on local water supply plans to spot systems in trouble. It is beginning to blend water supply data into the water-quality reports that are produced for each river basin.

But in 2010, legislators also ordered up computer models of the basins.

The complex models simulate the movement of water in the basins – what flows in, what’s pumped out, what is returned as treated wastewater. They can spot where shortages are likely.

Five years later, the state still has an incomplete picture. Models have been completed for only five of the state’s 17 river basins.

The Catawba model, done separately, was used to create a water supply strategy for the next 50 years. It envisions the effects of a warming planet.

Evaporation takes 300 million gallons of water from Catawba reservoirs on a hot summer day. If local temperatures rise 3.2 degrees by 2065, as the plan estimates, water loss would go up 11 percent – an additional 33 million gallons daily.

Drought and climate change are the wild cards in the plan’s projections, said Jeff Lineberger, Duke Energy’s director of water strategy. “And the amount of growth we wind up seeing, that is a big question mark,” he said.

It’s wise to assume the worst, he added.

Bruce Henderson

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