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Restrictions finally cutting Catawba River water use

Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby walks on the sandbar in Lake Wylie north of the Buster Boyd Bridge. The sandbar is usually under water and marked with the buoy that is now on dry land.
Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby walks on the sandbar in Lake Wylie north of the Buster Boyd Bridge. The sandbar is usually under water and marked with the buoy that is now on dry land.

Water use along the Catawba River basin finally is going down, but it's not enough to satisfy Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby.

Residents' reluctance to comply with restrictions and the lack of enforcement in the Carolinas have taken a toll on the river, she said. Continuing to cut back is imperative, but won't make as much of a difference as changing laws and better coordination between the two states.

"We can't control the rain," Lisenby said. "The thing we can control is to try and get a more consistent drought response and to get conservation requirements implemented sooner rather than later so we don't have too little too late."

Lisenby said well users need to conserve like those who get water from municipalities. And while she praised the efforts of some cities, she said there were some in North Carolina that needed to start conservation measures sooner.

"There were some real scofflaws," she said.

She'd also like to see water users who use extreme amounts to be charged more than those who use average amounts.

"A tiered rate structure protects the good folks who are conserving and who don't waste and charges the people who waste water," she said.

Growth increases water use

Water use in the area for the year already was up year-to-date, thanks to growth and the dry, hot summer, according to water suppliers. In July in York County alone, consumption was 60 percent higher than July 2006.

The drought, considered the worst in 70 years, came on quickly in the Southeast. The summer saw a string of days with temperatures 100 or above and 20 days in August with barely a trace of rain.

In a matter of months, Duke Energy had declared a Stage 3 drought for the entire Catawba River Basin. In Rock Hill, that meant lawn watering was limited to once a week.

Stage 4 could come between mid-December and mid-January, said a Duke spokesman. That would require water-consumption cuts of 20 percent to 30 percent through steps decided by each community.

"We've made it through the roughest part weather-wise with the hot summer and evaporation," said Rick Rhodes, a Duke spokesman. "But we're not out of the woods yet. We do need to continue to conserve and look at our water uses."

Rhodes said in a worst-case scenario, the highest municipal water intake could be exposed by mid-March. He added they feel that scenario is highly unlikely.

Duke Energy declares the various stages of drought because of its relicensing agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He added that while Duke regulates the 11 reservoirs along the river's 225 miles, it does not mandate restrictions for communities or coordinate communication.

Only now, water use in York County is beginning to show a significant decline, in part because lawn watering has been completely banned, said York County Water and Sewer Supervisor David Hughes. The ban was imposed in late October in Rock Hill and in early November in York County.

"We've just started to actively fine customers," said Hughes. "And people still say they don't know we were in a drought. I don't know how they don't know."

Water restrictions were put in place more than three months ago, and since then, Rock Hill has issued 539 warnings and almost 100 citations -- some for second and third offenses. In Rock Hill, a fourth offense can result in the water being turned off, said Jimmy Bagley, assistant utilities director for the city. Residential fines start at $50 for the first offense and double with the severity in the city and county.

More than half the citations came since the end of October when lawn watering was banned, including 54 first offenses, two second offenses and a third offense.

Using hotline tips, York County has warned about 100 violators and fined 10. They investigate all of the tips, but Hughes said some complaints are because of squabbles between neighbors while others haven't been caught yet.

It's easier to fine now because violators are easier to spot with lawn watering restricted, he said. Signs also are being installed to inform people of mandatory restrictions so they can't claim ignorance, he said.

In Rock Hill, city employees patrol at night and in the morning to look for violators, said Andrew McMillen, Rock Hill's drought management coordinator.

Restrictions have varied

York County and Rock Hill officials recently took steps to get restrictions on the same page. County council members recently adopted a resolution making county restrictions the same as the city's. This will allow the county to move to the next stage of restrictions all at once.

That kind of coordination in the region was called for last month at the quarterly meeting of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Commission by Bill Orford, a co-keeper on Lake Wylie.

Rock Hill started limiting water use Aug. 18 and eliminated lawn watering Oct. 22 -- the same day Newton, N.C., started restrictions. Charlotte was slower in adding regulations, Aug. 28, but banned lawn watering almost a month before Rock Hill. Gastonia, N.C., didn't regulate water use until Sept. 5.

Orford asked the committee to look into revamping regulations for consistency, enacting restrictions earlier and for better enforcement among communities.

"We learned a lot in the last few months, it's been a wake up call," he said. "We have the public's attention now. We need quicker triggers and sooner mandatory action."

Coordination between Duke and area water suppliers has been better during this drought than any other, said Rhodes, Duke's spokesman. A drought advisory committee talks every Tuesday to discuss water levels and the flow of water.

"All the major water users are sitting at the table and agreeing on activities and actions and contingency plans they'll put in," Rhodes said. "This is a real positive."

Drought surprised some

Duke has been conserving since April although the drought took others by surprise, said David Baize with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Some thought the rain would come.

In South Carolina, local utilities enforce water regulations, but the governor can stop non-essential water use if the situation gets dire enough, said Hope Mizzell, state climatologist for the Department of Natural Resources. Essential uses include drinking, fire protection and farming.

In an extreme drought, the state could encourage increasing rates for excessive water use and stop new water connections, said Mizzell, who is also the state's drought program coordinator.

Some South Carolina communities think they need police authority to enforce water restrictions, but Mizzell said enforcement can be as simple as adding a surcharge for violators.

Many North Carolina communities have water regulations that include turning off the water for violators, said John Morris of the North Carolina Division of Water Resources.

The two states are moving more toward consistency and working together, said Morris, citing collaboration on the re-licensing of the hydro-electric projects on the Catawba and Yadkin-Pee Dee basins.

Lisenby thinks the two states still can do better.

And until there is more consistency and conservation of water use, she and others worry about the future of the Catawba River.

"It's uncharted territory. No one really knows what would happen," Lisenby said. "It's so hard to imagine what would happen if we don't conserve water better and take care of this resource."

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