While Duke Power asked residents along Lake Wateree to conserve water to keep lake levels up during the current drought, the power company used that precious resource to generate extra power to cover a shortfall.
The power production during the recent hot spell contributed to the lake level dropping 1.7 feet in two weeks.
"This creates an enormous trust issue," said Donna Lisenby, the Catawba riverkeeper, who advocates for the river and its lakes. "It makes you wonder whether this utility is truly doing its part to conserve water."
Duke officials blame the October heat wave, which hit when the company's coal-fired power plants were offline for maintenance.
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While there were other options, such as buying power from other sources, Duke opted to use its hydropower production capabilities at Lake Wateree.
"We evaluate all those options and try to make the decision that's in the best interest of our customers," Duke spokeswoman Marilyn Lineberger said.
The power company has used its hydropower capacity sparingly since the drought began in spring, thereby keeping the levels as high as possible, she said. With temperatures returning to normal, Duke doesn't expect to use Lake Wateree for hydropower.
All the counties along the Catawba-Wateree system in South Carolina are in the third stage of a four-stage drought classification system. In North Carolina, all counties around the system are at the highest stage of drought.
Residents along Lake Wateree said they feel fortunate the power company has kept levels high in the last lake in a string of 11 on the Catawba-Wateree system. Still, the quick drop in the past two weeks frustrates them, especially since it came after Duke banned lakeside homeowners from pumping water out of the lake to water their lawns.
"This would seem to not be in keeping with the aim of all water users up and down the Catawba system," said Gary Faulkenberry of the Lake Wateree Association. "Everybody had been trying to work very cooperative on this. I'm perplexed by their decision."
Fortunately, Faulkenberry pulled his boat out of the water before he left on vacation Sept. 29. Some homeowners who were away for a few days returned to find their boats stuck in mud, he said.
In late September, the volume of water flowing in the Wateree River just below the dam ranged from 1,500 to 2,500 cubic feet per second most days. During hydropower production, volume peaked above 4,000 cubic feet per second seven times from Sept. 28 through Wednesday.
At a meeting of the Catawba-Wateree Drought Management Advisory Group on Oct. 2, Duke officials reported the releases from Lake Wateree were around 807 cubic feet per second.
Especially in North Carolina, where municipalities are threatening to fine people $500 for watering yards, the news of the hydropower production is likely to raise ire, Lisenby said.
"People are going to think they've been conserving in order to save water for Duke to use to make a profit," Lisenby said.