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Drought is officially over

LAKE WYLIE -- Two months after most Lake Wylie area municipalities lifted water-use restrictions, experts say the record 2007-2009 drought is finally over.

"Conditions across the basin have returned to normal," Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group coordinator Ed Bruce told the Lake Wylie Pilot last week. "The basin can support normal water use."

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows only a small section of the basin in abnormally dry conditions, and long-term groundwater is recharging. The area streamflows are at more than 85 percent usual capacities, well within the normal range. Lake levels are up, and rainfall through May fell within a quarter-inch of the normal, long-term expected amount.

But drought conditions starting two years ago escalated to mandatory restrictions at Stage 3 levels, according to Duke Energy's Low Inflow Protocol System, endangering water intakes. At its worst, the Wylie area went more than a month at a time without rainfall, lake levels dipped several feet below target levels closing all but one access ramp on the lake, with some streams dried up completely.

"For the first time since August 2006, we do not have any part of the state in drought conditions," said S.C. state climatologist Hope Mizzell.

According Mizzell, nine rainfall collection stations statewide show 99 to 119 percent of the expected rainfall amounts for this time of year. A drought that at one point included every county in the state left only 19 counties in drought status April 15, with all of them downgraded last week.

While the Catawba-Wateree group will continue monitoring the drought, following what it calls "the worst drought ever recorded in the basin," experts remain unsure.

"We are somewhat cautiously optimistic because there's no sort of guide on what the summer's going to be like," Mizzell said.

Yet water experts, including Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman, remain cautious. He said western Gaston County, which "contributes heavily" to the headwater flows of Crowders Creek, remains abnormally dry and the region has been "woefully behind" in rainfall for several years.

"We cannot forget that the drought conditions from the past years were horrific, and year-round water conservation and efficiency is the only way to ensure the river keeps its water," he said. "Human populations throughout the Catawba River basin are still growing at a rapid pace, and water removal outpaces this population growth."