Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols criticized Duke Energy and regional utility officials on Tuesday for what he called short-sighted decisions on the drought, saying too many changes to water restrictions are sending the wrong signals.
"I don't think we can treat the situation like a faucet where we just turn it on and turn it off," Echols said. "We're either, in my view, in a severe drought or we're not. To move back and forth is not the way to deal with this issue."
Five days ago, area water officials declared that communities along the Catawba River were free to allow residents to wash their cars and fill swimming pools one day a week at least through May. The group based its shift on new figures from Duke, which manages water flow on the Catawba.
Duke found that water levels had improved enough to allow the recommendation. Each city can choose whether to enact it.
"We certainly appreciate his concern for us running out of water," said Duke spokesman Rick Rhodes. "The data shows we're coming out of the drought. Instead of lifting all restrictions, what you see the group (saying) is, 'Let's lift these restrictions very slowly.'"
Echols called a news conference Tuesday to share his frustration and urge others along the Catawba-Wateree basin to take notice. It was an unusual move for the mayor, who typically doesn't choose media coverage as an avenue for shaping policy.
On Monday night, Echols will ask the City Council to hold off on relaxing rules any further in Rock Hill. He acknowledged that it may not be a popular course, but called on Rock Hill residents to act as leaders, not followers.
"The point I'm trying to make is, I don't want us to continue to send mixed messages," he said. "We don't have any idea whether we are headed into a dry spring or summer. This kind of response, I don't think, is the way to deal with this issue."
Exactly 1 inch of rain has fallen this month in Rock Hill, compared to 1.96 inches in Charlotte. Normal rainfall for this point in April is 2.09 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
In Echols' view, decisions are being influenced by political pressure from customers eager to use more water at their homes or businesses. Echols didn't say that last week when he was part of a unanimous council vote to allow lawn watering one day a week.
However, he argued Tuesday that more changes would be going too far.
Whatever route the city chooses will impact swimming pools, lawns and businesses trying to survive.
"I agree with him to a certain extent," said Rock Hill landscape architect Scott Reister. "We need to be in a conservation mode. But to say let's not plant and let's not irrigate, I don't think that's the correct way. I'd like to see changes that are not so anti-landscaping."
In criticizing the changes, Echols brought up the Catawba's designation last week as the most endangered river in America. The label from a conservation group called American Rivers cited booming population growth in the Charlotte area and outdated water withdrawal policies.
"The mayor has hit the nail on the head," said York County Councilman Rick Lee. "On the larger scale, this highlights the fact you have different cities and counties all giving declarations about the Catawba River as if they are independent of folks downstream. We should be thinking longer than one-month time frames."
Fort Mill Mayor Danny Funderburk said he leans toward Echols' way of thinking.
"It's hard to argue with that logic," Funderburk said. "We've had a respite, but I'm not sure the drought's over with. To continue tweaking it away from the conservation measures, I don't think that it's necessarily the best thing to do."
Other cities show a different mentality. In Clover, town leaders voted last month to bring rules in line with those of their water supplier, the city of Gastonia, N.C. That meant allowing lawn watering before any other jurisdiction in York County.
"We're just going to follow the guidelines our supplier gives us," Clover Mayor Donnie Grice said Tuesday. "That's as simple as it is. We're just trying to stay in line with them so everything stays uniform."
Duke says reservoir storage has recovered to above normal for this time of year and rainfall in the first quarter of 2008 was below normal, but higher than last summer and fall.
However, forecasters predict lower-than-average rainfall throughout the summer because of the continuing influence of La Niña. The right approach, Echols argued, is to resist relying on weather patterns susceptible to changing at any time.