Despite recent rain, drought persists in Piedmont Triad

by Amy Kingsley

You didn’t have to attend the Nov. 1 drought meeting at the Greensboro Coliseum to know the state faces a serious water crisis. But the severity of the problem doesn’t make it unacceptable fodder for Bible Belt comedy.

“If you’re a Catholic,” joked Wayne Munden of the NC Division of Environmental Health, “and I’m sure we have some of those here, we Baptists would prefer that you start praying that the wine turns back into water.”

The sober crowd of water administrators laughed. They wouldn’t have many other opportunities to crack wise during a four-hour conference otherwise equal parts gloom and alarm.

After a brief introduction by Greensboro Mayor Keith Holliday and a representative of the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, climatologist Ryan Boyles offered a precipitation prognosis. He said a la Niña weather system would bring unusually dry conditions to North Carolina this winter.

“Back in [the 2002 drought], we said, “If we can just get through the fall, winter is going to save us,'” Boyles said. “This winter, we’re pretty sure it’s going to be the opposite.”

In April, most of the state was seeing average rainfall. A mild drought plagued the southwest corner, but water supplies in the rest of North Carolina were healthy, Boyles said.

A high-pressure system that usually sits off the Carolina coast shifted to the Gulf of Mexico, which drove the summer moisture to Texas.

“You may have heard about record flooding in Texas,” Boyles said. “Well that’s our moisture, people. It’s supposed to be coming to us.”

The last time the Piedmont suffered a drought – in 2002 – it developed over several years of below-average rainfall. This year’s drought is a byproduct of a dry summer coupled with record high temperatures.

Curtis Weaver from the US Geological Service said that at several of the agency’s monitoring sites, stream flows have diminished to record lows. Several days of rain in October brought some of the stream back up to normal levels, but they’ve been declining since the weather passed.

“You could argue that we’ve been in mostly drought conditions since the late nineties,” Weaver said. “There is science that supports that. We are now in a new period of record minimums.”

Larry Band, a hydrologist at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the combination of population growth and unusual weather conspired to rob the state of surface water.

“We typically have a lot of rainfall in the Southeast,” Band said. “And our falls can be either wet or dry. We also have a high evaporation rate, so if the rains don’t come, the water level suffers.”

Citizens use more water when the weather gets drier, he said. They water their lawns more often during dry spells, which taxes an already stressed water system.

“Over time it’s obvious we shouldn’t be landscaping the way we are,” he said.

Most cities in the Piedmont rely on small water supply systems, Band said. That’s why cities like Greensboro and Raleigh are facing the very real possibility of running out of water within the next six months.

Winston-Salem is an exception. The city’s drinking water comes from the robust Yadkin River. More than 50 years ago, leaders in Winston-Salem and Wilkes County agreed to pay for part of the construction of a larger retaining pond behind a dam operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The rights to that emergency water – which has never been tapped – belong to the two communities.

In Greensboro, it is a different story.

“We have a great road system,” Holliday said. “We just don’t have a lot of water. Given our water situation, there’s no way we would have built Greensboro here today.”

Greensboro buys a third of its water from neighboring cities like Reidsville.

Band said some big cities, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, rely on regional water systems. Small water supplies are linked together to provide water to cities that may be hundreds of miles away. Atlanta, which is facing its worst water crisis in years, is eyeing water systems in the rural southern Appalachians.

Water transfers can be controversial, Band said. South Carolina is fighting North Carolina’s efforts to take water from the Catawba River, and Georgia is locked in a similar legal battle with Alabama.

“Cross basin transfers open up a whole other can of worms,” Band said. “You’re really just shifting your problem to somebody else’s backyard.”

The solution, most experts agree, is more conservation.

“Water conservation is the other water source,” said Gary Hunt from the NC Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance.

He said enforcement is the key to effective water restrictions. Also, cities need to treat industrial water users the same way they treat residential ones. Cities like Greensboro are reluctant to impose mandatory water restrictions on industry because it could hamper economic development.

Jeff Hughes, a professor at the UNC School of Government, said cities could use water rates to encourage conservation. Many cities, including Greensboro, charge users more per unit the more water they use – a structure known as increasing block rate. That way, the users who consume the least amount of water also pay the lowest rates.

Winston-Salem is one of the few cities that does the opposite, giving discounts to its biggest customers. Dave Saunders, the director of utilities, said the city is phasing out its fee structure.

“We recognize that declining block rates do not give people an economic incentive to conserve water,” Saunders said.

Winston-Salem, which is in a less severe drought category than Greensboro, has asked its citizens to conserve water. Consumption dropped by 10 percent between September and October, Saunders said.

“Do I think the voluntary measures take credit for all that?” he asked. “I’m not sure how much of it was from restrictions, and how much had to do with the temperature changing.”

Hughes said many towns and cities charge artificially low water rates, and put off water-saving improvements to keep costs down. Doing that creates waste, both by the consumer and within aging systems. He encouraged cities to bite the political bullet and start charging the full cost of water.

Boyles said the state needs at least 20 inches of rain during the next six months to recover from the drought. Only four inches of rain fell during the state’s driest winter, and Boyles said he fears this year’s totals will be on the low end of the spectrum.

In the near term, North Carolina residents should anticipate water shortages next summer, Boyles said. It’s hard to predict how global warming will affect the state, he said, but we should be prepared to deal with more droughts in the future.

“We have had more severe droughts in the past,” Boyles said. “And there will be more in the future. We are going to expect some recovery, but it may not be enough. Right now, conservation is the lowest cost way to save water.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at