LAKE WYLIE -- Under normal circumstances, the deck at T-Bones On The Lake is a popular spot to have a drink as the gentle waves of Lake Wylie flow under your feet.
These days, it offers a great view of the beach.
T-Bones and many other lake area businesses and attractions are treading water, trying to stay afloat as traffic evaporates with the lake water. This summer's severe drought and heat wave has dropped Lake Wylie more than 5 feet below full pond. It's gotten worse in August as only a trace of rain has been recorded. Now, the drought is threatening to dry up business, too.
"It really came down all at one time," David Mathien, owner of T-Bones, said about the drought, heat wave and students' return to school. Mathien said the combination of those factors is beginning to slow business at his popular watering hole and restaurant.
"The heat has impacted business the most," Mathien said. "People don't eat as much, and it gets awfully hot out on the deck."
Making do despite heat
Mathien said the restaurant has coped by serving more customers inside. Most of T-Bones' boat slips are still in use, attracting the regular boat crowd, he said.
"They look terrible from the water, but they still work," he said. "Only a handful are too shallow to use."
It's a common tale around the lake. Two boat ramps at Allison Creek were closed last week because of shallow water, and the ramps at Rock Hill's Ebenezer Park are barely usable.
Tony Huggins, park superintendent, said the water at Ebenezer's boat ramps has to be at least 4 feet deep to support boat launching. When measured last week, the water was 4 feet, 3 inches deep.
"If things keep going like this, within a few weeks we could be closed," he said.
Ebenezer Park is a prime example of the low water. The swimming area has been reduced to a clay beach with the sour smell of sun-dried weeds. Waist-deep water now tickles your knees.
"People want to know if the water is still open," Huggins said. "It is, but there's not much to swim in."
Huggins said crowds always dwindle when school resumes, but this year has been noticeably worse. On an average August morning, more than a dozen boaters hit the water by daybreak, Huggins said. On Wednesday, only two boats had launched from Ebenezer by late morning.
The slow traffic at Ebenezer Park is hurting business at the nearby River Stop Food Mart on Mount Gallant Road. Amy Stevens, a store clerk, said the steady flow of boats needing to gas up and stock their hulls with beverages and bait has dropped in sync with the lake.
"Even the weather in general has been hampering business," Stevens said. "People are talking about it (the low lake). They want rain."
Less food, less business
The 100-degree days have only cooled business further, Stevens said. The hungry workers on lunch breaks who frequent River Stop's snack bar aren't interested in fried chicken or corn dogs.
"All they want is Gatorade," she said.
As Labor Day approaches, most business owners are reminding customers the main channel of the lake is still plenty deep for boating and swimming. A slight chance of thunderstorms this weekend might prevent things from getting worse. But Duke Energy officials insist it will take a lengthy rainy season before levels are restored to normal.
At T-Bones, Mathien recalled a summer in the five-year drought from 1998 to 2002 when lake levels plunged to the point that his dock was no longer usable, severely undermining business. He said the lake will have to drop another foot before those conditions return.
"Right now, it's stable," he said. "It's just not real pretty."