Corps cuts lake flows as drought gets worse

Staff WriterSeptember 7, 2007 

— In the face of North Carolina's deepening drought, Corps of Engineers managers have sharply cut back water releases from Falls and Jordan lakes to husband reservoir levels for a parched period they expect to last until February.

With the Triangle slipping into extreme drought conditions Thursday and withering dryness now covering the entire state, the Corps has already launched a series of accelerated reductions that could slash water flowing out of Falls Lake by more than a quarter on Oct. 1 and that out of Jordan Lake by nearly half.

The expedited constraints will affect towns, industrial plants and other users downstream on the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers. They were put in play Sept. 1 because this year's drought is mimicking the worst dry spell on record, which stretched from May 1933 until February 1934.

"We've got to find a way to methodically throttle back to survive until about February 2008," said Terry Brown, water control manager at the Corps of Engineers' district office in Wilmington. "It's the old story of everybody sharing a little bit of pain to avoid one or two suffering all of the pain."

Brown said his agency started the cutbacks after alerting state and local officials, users downstream along both rivers and wildlife experts worried about the impact of smaller reservoir releases on fish and other aquatic life. As a result, local water managers can plan for lower river levels and send an early signal whether stricter conservation measures are called for.

Worst-case scenario

That means Johnston County -- which supplies all or part of the water for Clayton and six other towns -- can start preparing pumps and pipes to draw water from the middle of the Neuse River once levels drop below the water system's intake pipes.

"That's the worst-case scenario we're anticipating," said Tim Broome, Johnston County's director of infrastructure and utilities. "We're not expecting the river issue to drive us to more stringent conservation measures."

The Corps cutbacks won't have a direct impact on Raleigh because the city draws all its water supply above the Falls Lake dam. But the reductions do provide Raleigh officials with liquid insurance, because Corps officials expect them to stretch the reservoir's potable water supply by another six weeks.

Raleigh has shaved about 6 million gallons of water off its daily usage since adopting Stage 1 water restrictions on Aug. 28.

Under Stage 1 restrictions, which limit most watering to one day a week, the city is using an average of 58.7 million gallons of water a day. Daily usage topped out at more than 70 million gallons several times during the August heat wave.

Despite stricter conservation measures, levels in Falls Lake continue to plummet. The prolonged drought and last month's triple-digit temperatures created an evaporation rate that exceeded the meager flow of water into the reservoir. That set the second-ranking low in the past 80 years, Brown said.

Losing 1 inch per day

So far, this month's influx is even worse. That means the reservoir is losing an inch a day from its water level, a foot every 10 days.

"If if stays this dry, we'll probably run out of water supply by January," said Mike Moneypenny, hydrologist for the National Weather Service's Raleigh office.

And don't expect conditions to improve for either the short or long run, Moneypenny said.

A wobbly weather system over the Atlantic Ocean isn't expected to bring rain to the state's interior.

North Carolina is also moving into the traditional dry season of fall, Moneypenny said. To break the deep drought, the Triangle would need up to 24 inches of rain, Moneypenny said.

Only hurricanes and tropical storms can deliver that much.

"We need a couple of tropical systems in here," he said, "and odds are, we won't get it," he said.

Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at (919) 829-8955 or jim.nesbitt@newsobserver.com.

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