Tighter water restrictions months away for Rock Hill

LAKE WYLIE -- Area officials say the Catawba River's water supply is holding up, and further drought restrictions are still a few months off.

Stage 4 drought conditions, which include the most severe water restrictions, were originally thought to be necessary before the end of the year.

Now, Duke says, Stage 4 could come in February.

In Rock Hill, Utilities Director Jimmy Bagley said February is the earliest he expects to see more water restrictions, but that could change.

"We're not losing as much water in the lakes as we were two months ago," he said. "We're not getting much precipitation, but not as much water's being used. ... We maybe have another six months before we hit a critical level."

The forecast for Catawba River water use improved slightly last week, though the long-range impact could include emergency drought response.

"Cooler temperatures and conservation slowed the amount of water leaving the basin in November," said Steve Jester, vice president with hydro licensing and lake services at Duke Energy. "While this is good news, it's important to understand that we are in a rainfall-dependent basin. We must have rainfall to return the water levels in lakes and the river levels back to normal."

Stage 4 does not mean the basin is out of water, the company says, but that water suppliers would need to increase water restrictions and conservation as the region waits for rainfall. So far, new record lows for rainfall have the region below normal levels by 19 inches or more, according to Duke.

A Stage 4 drought essentially bans all outdoor and nonessential water uses. However, the specific restrictions that'll come with Stage 4 are still being defined, Bagley said, but could include stopping new water connections and requiring a 10 percent reduction in water use.

"We've never gone there (Stage 4) before," he said. "We want to make sure we have water as long as we can get it."

Long term, Duke expects a winter of above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall, meaning the loss of water is not expected to let up soon.

"Winter and spring rains typically refill the reservoirs in this basin," Jester said. "Without normal rainfall patterns during this period, the ability to generate adequate electricity, keep shallow water intakes covered and provide water for industrial uses becomes more of a concern."

Worst-case scenarios from Duke have the basin reaching critical lows, meaning the usable water within the basin would be depleted, by May. Earlier estimates had that timeframe at mid-March. That scenario, the company maintains, is highly unlikely.