Riverkeeper seeing drought's devastation on Lake Wylie

During a recent boat trip, Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby picked up a hazard buoy laying on its side on a sandbar north of Buster Boyd Bridge on Lake Wylie and asked a lakeside homeowner: How many times do you think we moved it to deeper water?

CD Collins, a board member for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, replied that the buoy was moved at least four times, and each time it was moved further in to the lake.

"We can't keep up with how fast the water level is dropping on the 100-year-old lake," said Collins, who has lived beside Lake Wylie for more than 40 years. "It'll take more than one soaking rain or one flood to get out of this drought. I hope it never gets like this again."

At least 15 inches of rain is needed to bring Lake Wylie back to its normal water level, Lisenby said. Any rain that comes will be more beneficial after the leaves fall off the trees and the soil is colder because more water will be absorbed.

For perspective, two days of rain in late October netted 2 inches of rain and raised the lake 6 inches, she said. Thursday's rain brought just a quarter-inch.

With the lake 3 inches away from "critical level," Lisenby said she's never seen Lake Wylie like this in her 10 years as riverkeeper.

All dried up:

• Catawba Coves and Camp Thunderbird islands have become peninsulas. With the water levels so low, sand now connects them to the shore.

• The water around Lake Wylie Marina isn't deep enough to allow boats to access the lake. Lisenby said the riverkeeper and sheriff's office boats had to be taken out of the marina.

• The sandbar, a popular place to picnic and play volleyball on the lake, is completely dry. "I've never walked on the sandbar without getting wet before," Lisenby said. "It can get up to waist deep."

Economy suffers:

• With a few of the more than 30 access points to Catawba River left open, a lot of lake-dependent businesses are losing money, Lisenby said. This includes tournament organizers and boat manufacturers. Money brought in to the area by recreational users also is down.

• Lake Wylie Marina suffered some damage -- cracked cement and bent metal -- after it stopped floating as designed. Owner Jeff Hall said it's all fixable and should be fine when the water comes back up. But insurance doesn't cover the damage. They'll get an estimate after the drought.

• River construction worker Scott Falls said the drought makes it harder to install decks and do other work.

"It's not as easy as you like," he said from his barge while moving a dock down the lake. "It's harder to move equipment around. You notice a lot of stuff in river that you never thought would be there. You have to be careful."

A drought positive:

• It allows for trash removal of items that high water levels would conceal. A recent clean-up attempt on Lake Wylie netted 17 tons of trash in three hours with a couple hundred volunteers.