Despite rain, drought still going

Staff WritersJune 24, 2008 

Successive thunderstorms of the past few days soaked lawns and cushioned reservoir supplies, but they didn't come close to ending the drought.

Still, we'll take it.

At Falls Lake, which had been dropping steadily for weeks, several inches of rain throughout its watershed helped Raleigh's water source level off at about half a foot below full.

But follow that up with a week of hot, dry weather, which forecasters predict, and the lake's downward slide will resume.

"We've had a lot of rain in certain places, but it hasn't been widespread," Barrett Smith, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Raleigh office, said Monday. "The afternoon and evening thunderstorms we get don't give us the coverage we need. Stream flows go up quickly, but they don't stay up very long."

Neuse down, up, down

Thanks to the rain of the past three days, the Neuse River's upper reaches and tributaries were flowing heavily Monday -- twice the norm at Clayton, for example.

But downstream in Goldsboro and Kinston, where the weekend runoff has yet to arrive, the river was running at less than half of normal for this time of year.

It'll take more than routine summer thunderstorms to break the drought's grip, weather experts say. Only a drenching tropical weather system would fully restore stream flows and recharge groundwater supplies, they say.

As of last week, state officials said the Triangle from about Cary west was suffering "serious" drought conditions -- the third of five drought classifications -- with Raleigh eastward in lesser "moderate" drought. New calculations are expected Thursday.

Compromise water bill

At the General Assembly, a compromise drought-response bill is in the works. State administrators, environmentalists and representatives of cities and counties, the agriculture industry and private water companies worked Monday to try to come up with proposed rules for water use during future droughts.

A proposal from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources drew fire from almost everyone who would have to account for how much water they use, so a compromise is being drafted.

Already, farm interests have negotiated a change in the proposal so they would continue to be exempt from registering water use of less than 1 million gallons a day. Instead, they would report water use in a confidential survey, and the state Department of Agriculture would report aggregate figures to the state.

And a proposal to impose uniform conservation policies on local governments with water systems facing a drought was changed to let the governments decide what steps to take to meet water-saving targets.

Significant questions remain, such as how local utilities should set rates to encourage conservation. No legislative committee has yet debated the bill, and the legislature might soon adjourn.

Robin Smith, a DENR assistant secretary, urged the group to advance the proposal to help protect the state in droughts.

"I would hate to see time run out on this," she said.

matthew.eisley@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4538

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