Local

Here’s why a wet weekend in York Co. may mean more than just dampened outdoor plans.

A wet weekend may not bode well for the social calendar, but it could be just what York and surrounding counties need amid ongoing and, in some places, worsening drought.

On Thursday, the South Carolina Drought Response Committee reviewed drought statuses for the state’s 46 counties. York, Lancaster and Chester counties remain among the now 38 counties facing moderate drought. Eight counties along the eastern state line and coast still see wetter conditions.

In mid-September, York and Lancaster conditions worsened to their current status. The drought response group lists possibilities as normal, incipient, moderate, severe and extreme. Getting into severe, one step up from where the entire tri-county area is now, would mean the beginning of voluntary water conservation measures.

Later in September, Jimmy Bagley, deputy city manager in Rock Hill and long-time member of multiple regional water management groups, told city council it was likely severe drought and mandatory restrictions would come -- if we did not get rain.

“All indicators are basically showing that we are in severe dry times,” Bagley told council last month. “The only thing that’s keeping us out of a severe drought notification at this point is the fact that the stream levels are still up, so the fact that the lakes are up.”

The situation hasn’t changed much. Drought indicators include water supply and water quality, but also agriculture and risk of forest fire. The drought response group Thursday heard overwhelming evidence of severe drought impacts to agriculture.

By late summer, beef producers were feeding cattle from the winter hay supply. Crop yields have decreased in several counties. Reg Williams, an Edgefield timber company owner and farmer, had concerns staying at just moderate drought for most of the state.

“From an agricultural perspective, we are in a severe drought, however I voted to stay at moderate drought status since we have yet to reach the severe drought status in all sectors,” he said.

Yvonne Kling, a agricultural producer from Aiken and drought group member, agreed.

“I empathize with our farmers and recognize that any rain we may receive out of this coming weather event will not alleviate the current problems, as winter hay has been fed to livestock and crops have already been lost and cannot be recovered,” Kling said. “We are in a farming crisis due to drought.”

However, rain could help.

The National Weather Service forecasts the chance of rain as high as 80% in the Rock Hill area on Saturday and more than 60% on Sunday. It predicts likely rain Saturday, heavy rain Saturday night and a chance of showers on Sunday. Monday night into Tuesday there is rain forecast up to a 40% chance.

“Another reason for my decision is that due to the pending rainfall forecast the committee is going to reconvene in two weeks and reevaluate,” Williams said.

Leslie Woodham, fire staff officer with the state forestry commission, said recent rain has helped. The commission reported Thursday that, so far in October, it responded to 127 wildfires burning more than 780 acres. More than twice the fires and about five times the acreage burned, compared to that same typical span of October.

“If we get additional rain over the next week or so, fuel moisture will increase, and wildfire potential will go down,” Woodham said. “With the rainfall we have received, the Forestry Commission is comfortable keeping most counties classified in moderate drought, but if we experience another dry period, the straw, grass, and other fuels that allow wildfires to start will be dry again, and the drought status will need to be re-evaluated.”

The main holdout on worsening drought in recent months was water levels. Now, streams and lakes are starting to drop. Several upstate gages fell below normal levels for the first time in this drought.

There aren’t water withdrawal issues in the state, though public water suppliers are reporting unprecedented water demand for this time of year, according to the drought group. Locally, the demand for water has been a hot topic.

Rock Hill, which draws water that ultimately goes to end users throughout York County, had a water pipe burst Oct. 9 spilling 30 million gallons and causing a boil advisory for about 120,000 customers. Lake Wylie residents had mandatory outdoor water restrictions lifted just two days prior. Those rules were in place since May when Blue Granite Water Company cited unusually high demand. Blue Granite also is seeking a rate increase.

As of late morning Friday, several spots in the tri-county area reported rain in the past week. Lake Wylie had 1.67 inches, according to the National Weather Service, followed by Rock Hill at 1.11 inches and Lancaster at 1.06 inches. Tega Cay collected .99 inches with Fort Mill at .91 inches and McConnells at .77 inches.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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