It's dry as far as eye can see

Dealing with the drought

Sam Austin waters his plants at Sam's Equipment and Outdoor Supplies daily to keep them alive. The Chester Metropolitan District's tough water-use restrictions don't apply to watering a business's inventory ... at least not yet.

But as bad as drought conditions are in South Carolina, they pale in comparison to North Carolina's and Georgia's. But we need only look to our neighbors to see what condition the state will be in if dry weather continues much longer.

"The main difference right now is the population that is in threat in those two states," said Hope Mizzell, state drought coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

In Siler City, N.C., mandatory water-use restrictions forced two chicken processing plants to truck in water to remain in operation.

In Stone Mountain, Ga., extreme drought conditions prompted the shutdown of a planned snow-tubing attraction that would have used 38 gallons of water per minute.

Remaining water supplies for Raleigh, N.C., and Atlanta are measured in terms of months, and Charlotte isn't much better off. Meanwhile, experts say Columbia, Greenville and Charleston have plenty of water in their reservoirs to make it through even a dry winter.

But if winter and spring are dry ...

"We need to start talking about conservation now so we don't get to those mandatory restrictions later," Mizzell said.

Exceptional drought, the worst of North Carolina's classifications, has been declared in 56 of the state's 100 counties. About 3.25 million people in the state are dealing with mandatory water restrictions, and another 1.5 million are under voluntary restrictions.

The heart of the state is the hardest hit. Greensboro rainfall for the year is 14 inches below normal. Lake James, on the Catawba River, is down 9 feet.

With its water reservoir running out, Siler City demanded a 50 percent reduction in water use by residents and businesses. Two chicken plants in the city, which use up to 800,000 gallons of water each day, told officials they couldn't operate on 50 percent of that level.

Carol Couch, the director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, is expected this week to send a letter to Gov. Sonny Perdue outlining options, including severe restrictions on commercial and industrial users in the Atlanta area.

Annual rainfall is 16 inches below normal in Peachtree City. Lake Lanier, the water source for more than 3 million people, is down 11 feet. It has dropped 2 feet since Sept. 1.

Despite an extremely dry year in South Carolina, conditions, and restrictions, aren't as bad as for our neighbors. Rainfall in Columbia is 16 inches below normal for the year, but our smaller population uses less water.

Drought conditions in the state are classified as severe, step three in a four-tier system, in every county except Jasper and Beaufort. At the severe classification, some communities begin requiring mandatory use restrictions, but others don't.

South Carolina's water regulations keep the authority local. Most water companies still have plenty of water in their reservoirs. It's difficult to tell a business that has plenty of product to sell that it has to force customers to buy less of the product, said Mizzell, the state drought coordinator.

Each water utility in the state agrees to a set of mandatory restriction triggers, based in part on their customers' typical water use and the availability of water. The current drought has hit the triggers for about two dozen utilities supplying about 250,000 people, mostly along the Catawba-Wateree river system.

For the most part, those restrictions limit lawn watering to a couple of days a week and ban washing cars and using water to clean sidewalks and driveways.

Water providers along the Catawba-Wateree system are discussing the prospect of moving to the next drought stage, which would require a complete ban on nonessential outdoor water use, said Mike Medlin, executive director of the Chester Metropolitan District.

If that happens, Sam Austin will stop selling plants at his Chester business.

"If people get plants, they have to water them," Austin said. "This is really killing the lawn-care business."

Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby, who works in support of the Catawba-Wateree river system in North Carolina and South Carolina, criticized Gov. Mark Sanford for not using his bully pulpit to encourage conservation.

"In North Carolina, two months ago the governor started sending letters to counties and cities and citizens asking them to save water," Lisenby said.

Sanford favors water conservation, but the situation in South Carolina hasn't reached the point where the governor steps in, said spokesman Joel Sawyer. In the 2002 drought, Gov. Jim Hodges didn't call for mandatory restrictions until the state officially reached extreme drought conditions, which it hasn't reached in 2007 ... yet.

Unfortunately, no significant rainfall is in the immediate forecast, and the Climate Prediction Center is calling for a drier than normal winter for the Carolinas.

• Instead of letting water run down the sink or shower drain, save it and use it to water a plant. Place a bucket in the shower, or use a bucket to dip water from a sink.

• Repair dripping faucets. A faucet dripping at one drop per second can waste 2,700 gallons in a year.

• Take shorter showers and replace shower head with a low-flow version.

• Operate automatic dishwashers and clothes washers only when they are fully loaded.

• Don't overwater lawns. As a general rule, lawns need watering every five to seven days in the summer and every 10 to 14 days in the winter.

• Water lawns during the morning hours, when temperatures and wind speeds are the lowest, reducing losses from evaporation.

• Use drip irrigation and soaker hoses in gardens.

Source: S.C. Department of Natural Resources