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Rain does little to quench N.C. drought

Tropical Storm Fay's remnants are no match for some of the driest conditions on record in the western region.

August 31, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — When Tropical Storm Fay was flooding parts of Florida last week, people here prayed that the soaking rains would move north and douse this drought-stricken mountain resort city.

The rains finally arrived Monday, but even an all-day storm could not ease one of the most punishing droughts in the last 100 years -- some say the worst ever -- in this region.

The rest of the southeastern United States has gradually recovered from last summer's record drought, but a small pocket in western North Carolina and parts of three other states remain locked in some of the driest conditions they've ever recorded.

In Asheville earlier this month, the French Broad River, the major waterway here, reached its lowest levels since record-keeping began in 1895. Local residents described walking across sections of the normally deep-flowing river for the first time in their lives.

Even with the rainstorm, the state's Drought Management Advisory Council considers the region mired in "extreme" drought, the second-most-severe of five drought categories.

The 18-county area lies roughly between the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains, with extreme drought conditions extending into corners of Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia.

"The rain was great, but we still have a long way to go before we catch up" to normal rainfall levels, said Hartwell Carson, the French Broad River keeper.

The drought, now in its second year, has been so severe that some towns have imposed mandatory water restrictions that have left lawns brown and perennial beds wilted. A few white-water rafting companies have temporarily shut down, putting a strain on an economy that relies, in part, on tourism and recreation.

Many cattle farmers can't grow enough hay to feed their herds, forcing some to sell off the animals. Apple growers complain that the lack of rain has produced smaller, less profitable fruit.

Many restaurants are serving water only on request and are using paper plates and plastic utensils. One firefighting company is using portable pumps to draw water from ponds rather than from hydrants fed by local water systems.

Swimming and boating were banned at one local lake because "there just wasn't much lake left to speak of," said Bill Eaker, environmental services manager for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, a planning consortium of four mountain counties. In 27 years of working on river programs, Eaker said, he has never seen the French Broad so dry.

Earlier this month, the annual Mayor's Cup Raft Race, a rafting competition on the French Broad among the area's elected officials, was canceled because there wasn't enough water to float a raft.

Even with the French Broad engorged with murky brown rainwater after Monday's storm, it would take several more such storms to end the drought, forecasters said.

"The deficits are so great, not even a big soaker like this storm can erase them," said Douglas LeComte, a drought specialist at the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Groundwater levels are 2 to 5 feet below normal.

Hendersonville, 30 miles south of Asheville, has banned lawn and flower-bed watering. Empty swimming pools cannot be filled. Carwashes and power washing companies must recycle or show water reductions of 20% to continue operating.

The Mills River, the town's main water source, has been at one-fifth to one-sixth of its normal flow this summer.

"We're at the epicenter of the drought," even after Monday's rains, said City Manager William "Bo" Ferguson. "This is a historic drought, the likes of which we've never seen before."

Since the spring of 2007, high-pressure systems have blocked storms that broke last summer's drought in most of the rest of the Southeast, LeComte said.

"It's kind of strange the way that little pocket has held out and missed out on those storm systems," he said.

Even in other areas of North Carolina, people are not aware that the western mountains remain locked in drought, said Carson, the river keeper.

He added: "Big cities like Atlanta and Raleigh have been OK with water this summer, so we haven't gotten the national attention we did last summer," when cities across the Southeast came close to running out of water.

If the mountain areas don't get more rainstorms, the French Broad and other rivers will soon drop to low levels again, Carson said. Other major rivers in the region, including the Catawba and Yadkin, also saw record low levels earlier this month.

Depleted water levels mean warmer temperatures and lower oxygen levels that stress fish, said Jared Bales, director of the North Carolina Water Science Center, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. At the same time, he said, low water levels mean a higher concentration of pollutants discharged into rivers.

On the other hand, fishermen report excellent fishing in shallow waters. And Dave Donnell, who runs a canoe and rafting company on the French Broad, said his customers love the leisurely tubing trips and crystal-clear water possible at low river levels.

Carson, whose river-keeper office is on the banks of the French Broad, said he worried that Monday's rainstorm might prompt complacency. While some rainwater soaked into the ground, much of it simply washed into storm drains as runoff from streets and parking lots.

Even after more than a year of drought, Carson said, few local officials are pushing for tougher water conservation regulations.

"I'm not sure people sense the urgency," he said.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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