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Experts: 'Drought plan worked'

LAKE WYLIE -- Since last week's announcement drought conditions are now the best they have been since 2007, several water experts are beginning to praise Duke Energy's Low Inflow Protocol system introduced to combat the record drought.

"The drought and restrictions leave us quietly, but this was really a huge response to a tough situation, and everyone did their part," said Maeneen Klein, water conservation manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities. "The regional drought plan worked."

CMU last week lifted Charlotte water restrictions for the first time since July 2007, following the Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group's recommendation that conditions throughout the Catawba River basin warrant Stage 1 drought response of voluntary water-use restrictions, as opposed to the more severe Stages 2-4, which carry mandatory restrictions.

All of these stages, which became household terms during the heat of the drought in 2007, are part of the LIP system in Duke's 2008 hydroelectric relicensing process, which allows the company to continue managing the Catawba River and its lakes. The process also created the Drought Management Advisory Group, made up of Duke and municipal water providers, and outlined shared responses to drought conditions such as scheduled irrigation, public advisories and reduced flows from Catawba lakes.

"Nearly two dozen Catawba water partners and civic leaders in two states issued a unified call for conservation," Klein said. "Citizens and businesses responded to protect our shared water supply. Because of that teamwork, no community faced additional emergency restrictions, and none of us ran out of water."

Four triggers determine LIP stages -- lake levels, groundwater levels, three-month average of the U.S. Drought Monitor and six-month average streamflows. At their lowest points, three of the four triggers registered Stage 4 drought -- the most severe on the 0-4 scale. Streamflow reached 30 percent in January 2008, 10 percent below the Stage 3 mark. The previous month saw Stage 4 declaration by the U.S. Drought Monitor, while October 2007 saw groundwater levels nearly run dry.

LIP conservation kicked in to keep lake levels, even at their lowest point, at Stage 3. Although levels, which equate to reservoir storage, reached 56 percent in December 2007, by remaining above the Stage 4 mark, the area avoided the most drastic drought measures. While Stage 3 bans all outdoor water uses, Stage 4 can mean anything from trucking water into the area to emergency planning and reductions at nuclear plants.

According to Duke, once Stage 4 is declared area water supplies could be "fully depleted in a matter of weeks."

David Harmon, public works director for York County and drought group member, calls the LIP system an "excellent tool for managing our water resources."

Even though the return of normal conditions could lead to tweaking the system, the area only needs look at the drought ending in 2002 -- severe by most standards, but surpassed by the one beginning in 2007 -- to see how shared response helped.

"People were on different pages, working with different ordinances and different rules and regulations," Harmon said. "This brought everybody together."

Still, Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman warns just because conditions are better, writing off the drought or even passing judgment on the LIP system might be premature. The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, a stakeholder in Duke's relicensing process, chose not to sign the final agreement and is not part of the drought management group.

"We really won't be able to judge its effectiveness until we find if it's been rolled down too soon," Merryman said.

Given the length of time and impact of the drought, basing decisions on three-month levels leaves Merryman "a little apprehensive" knowing spring rains give way to summer's heat, which could put the area back at Stage 2 or even Stage 3. Then, he said, the success of the system may need to be reevaluated.

"We're still in abnormally dry conditions," Merryman said.

On at least one point, Duke agrees. The LIP system, at its most efficient, is designed only to give nature more time, said Duke's Ed Bruce, who also is coordinator for the drought group.

"Future rainfall patterns will dictate whether conditions continue to improve or the basin falls back into a moderate or severe drought," he said.

How did we get here?

Low Inflow Protocol uses four triggers-- lake levels, groundwater levels, three-month average of the U.S. Drought Monitor and six-month average streamflows. Of the triggers, only the six-month average streamflow gauge lagged in Stage 2 conditions in March, while the other three -- lake levels, groundwater levels and three-month average of the U.S. Drought Monitor -- showed Stage 1 conditions or better. The six-month streamflow indicator jumped 6.1 percent from March to April, changing conditions to Stage 1.

Drought committee to meet

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources will convene the South Carolina Drought Response Committee at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Columbia to evaluate the drought status statewide. The committee will review climatic data, streamflow and lake level data, and drought impacts. For more information, call 803-734-9568. The group last met on Feb. 19. Nine counties were maintained at the extreme level, 16 counties along the coast and Pee Dee region changed from no drought status to incipient, and five counties, including York, were downgraded to moderate status.