Our Water

Droughts prompted new plan to meet future water needs

A worst-in-a-century drought left dried mud on the banks of the Catawba River in 2007. In response, water managers in the river basin projected water needs 50 years into the future and developed strategies to survive the next deep drought.
A worst-in-a-century drought left dried mud on the banks of the Catawba River in 2007. In response, water managers in the river basin projected water needs 50 years into the future and developed strategies to survive the next deep drought. charlotte observer

After two record droughts and a study that predicted a breaking point for the Catawba, water managers launched a deeper exploration of the region’s future water supplies.

Eighteen municipal systems and Duke Energy, the Catawba’s gatekeeper, commissioned a plan that was released last year. It includes projections for future water needs and strategies for making the supply last longer. Key elements of the plan include:

▪  More conservation, continuing a trend that has reduced per capita water use 25 percent in the Catawba basin since 2002, to 85 gallons a day per person. The plan envisions another 18 percent drop, to 70 gallons of water a person by 2055. Population growth is expected to drive up overall demand in future decades.

▪  Lowering the pipes, called intakes, through which Duke and municipal utilities draw water from reservoirs. That would make withdrawals possible even when lake levels are low.

▪ Raising the target levels of the biggest lakes – James, Norman and Wylie – by 6 inches in summer so they hold more water. Some worry that higher lake levels will mean more flooding in rainy times.

▪ Tweaking a drought-response plan first put in place in 2007 so that Duke and water utilities react quicker. Duke will shut down its hydro units within 24 hours, instead of five days.

The plan is built to withstand future droughts that, compared with growing demand for water, will sap the Catawba reservoirs.

“The whole premise of the master plan is that were it not for drought, we would have plenty of water,” Charlotte Water director Barry Gullet said.

Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins believes the plan’s projections are far too optimistic.

Perkins says the computer model on which the plan is based doesn’t accurately simulate lake levels on the Catawba. The plan should include more options for conserving water, he added, such as limiting water transfers to other river basins.

“If we had (drought) that was comparable to or worse than 2007-2008, you could start to see some of those water intake structures truly exposed,” he said. “It could be an unprecedented crisis.”

Bruce Henderson

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