Raleigh says it's ready for next drought

Staff WriterFebruary 18, 2011 

As another drought looms over the Triangle, officials say Raleigh is armed with lessons learned from the last one and new tools to combat old problems.

This time, new hydrologic models are able to predict events using 81 years of data. The city also has tapped into the Swift Creek Lake system with a new water facility, a resource not available during the last drought.

And conservation measures that kicked off during the 2007 drought have set new water efficiency habits in customers that are paying off in lower peak-day usage and low growth in average annual use.

"I feel as confident as I can without knowing the future that we have prepared well," Assistant Public Utilities Director Kenneth Waldroup said. "We've certainly learned the lessons from the drought of record, and we are better prepared."

Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said a "severe" drought exists in all or part of 27 counties in central North Carolina, including Wake County.

A severe drought is the third level on a scale of five.

Right now, Waldroup thinks Raleigh is in good shape to weather the dry spell, even going into the high-usage spring and summer months.

For one thing, models show a low probability of water levels in Falls and Swift Creek lakes dropping enough to trigger mandatory water restrictions. For another, recent conservation strategies have only begun to yield results.

Use is lower

Six million gallons shaved off the peak-day water usage rate between 2007 and 2010 allowed officials to postpone planned expansions to the E.M. Johnson Water Treatment Plant, giving the city three to five years to come up with the $250 million.

That's an 8 percent decrease in peak usage at a time when the customer base grew to about 165,000 connections, about a 3 percent increase.

The average yearly usage rate crept up by 2.5 percent during that time. But the new tiered payment rates and monthly billing introduced in November are expected to maintain or slow that growth rate, Waldroup said.

Tiered payments encourage conservation by charging high-volume users more for water, which urges consumers to use less. Monthly billing reminds residents more often of how much water they're using.

That strategy matches recommendations made by the State Water Infrastructure Commission last year, said Shadi Eskaf, senior project director at the Environmental Finance Center at the UNC School of Government.

A decline in peak-day water use like the one Raleigh saw last year is "a pretty good start" to an overall conservation plan, Eskaf said. Peak-day use measures the day that consumers used the largest volume of water each year.

Rules for watering

A number of factors affect water use. The hotter and drier the summer, the more water is used to cool buildings, water lawns and do laundry.

During the last drought, Raleigh instituted rules regulating lawn irrigation, with penalties for violations. That helped ensure that residents were not overtaxing the water supply.

The city tries to drive home a strong conservation message, Waldroup said.

chelsea.kellner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4802

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