Region's drought persists during time of recovery

CHARLOTTE -- Drought continues to dog Charlotte and the western Carolinas--and winter, normally a time for depleted groundwater and streams to recover, looks dry.

Charlotte's rainfall so far this year is within 2.2 inches of normal, but that's false assurance. Most of the city's water supply flows from the west, the state's driest region.

Asheville's rain total is 12.5 inches behind for the year. Greenville, in Upstate South Carolina, has a 13.4-inch deficit.

Parts of six N.C. counties in the state's western tip, along with northwestern South Carolina and northern Georgia, are back in exceptional drought--the severest stage--after improving a few months ago.

The drought began in spring 2007, centered initially on the same mountain region. By last December, it had deepened and spread to every N.C. county. It has ebbed and flowed since then, ending in Eastern North Carolina and leaving Mecklenburg County classified only as abnormally dry.

But a year and a half later, the lingering drought has come full circle back to the mountain region where it began.

"We've never really recovered," said Leanna Staton, environmental educator with the Clay County Soil and Water Conservation District. "Water levels are just extremely low."

Farmers in the small mountain county are drilling wells, with the help of state grants, to replace dried-up springs used to water livestock. Many had to reseed dead pasture grass. The county is exploring the possibility of drawing water from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Lake Chatuge.

With 58 percent of North Carolina still in some stage of drought, the federal Climate Prediction Center expects abnormally dry conditions to linger west of Charlotte through February.

Dry conditions deepen immediately west of Mecklenburg County. Gaston, Lincoln and Catawba counties are in moderate drought, the second-deepest stage. Burke, Caldwell and Cleveland counties are among those in severe drought, a stage worse.

Streams and groundwater in the western ends of both Carolinas remain at or near record lows for this time of year.

"In the western part of the mountains, particularly the southern mountains, it's consistently below normal," said Curtis Weaver of the U.S. Geological Survey in Raleigh. "They haven't had any really substantial relief in a long time."

A well the state monitors in Rowan County, one closest to Charlotte, illustrates the drought's continued impact on the Piedmont. Its water level is 8.7 feet below the ground's surface, a half-foot below the bottom end of its normal range for November.

"We're not getting the consistent, heavy rainfall patterns to raise the water levels in that well," Weaver said. "Until we can get a good recovery of the groundwater system in general, nothing is going to change."

The Catawba River basin, which includes Mountain Island Lake, the major water source for Charlotte and Gastonia, has averaged only 73 percent of its normal rainfall for the year, leaving an 8.8 inch deficit.

Duke Energy's Catawba reservoirs are at or above target levels, said senior engineer George Galleher. But streams in the basin are flowing at only 51 percent of their normal rate, a result of depressed groundwater that feeds them.

"We really need (winter rain) to recharge these rivers," Galleher said. "Base flow in the rivers is really pitiful."

A Catawba River drought advisory group, which met Monday, recommended that outdoor water use in the basin continue to be restricted to two days a week.

Watch the drought's progression at http-//www.charlotteobserver.com/static/images/graphics/drought/drought Map.html