Thurmond Lake’s anglers and boaters are betting on rainfall to refill their shrinking reservoir, but Bill Clayton isn’t taking any chances.
“We have an emergency set of plans, and we’re ready to go if we need them,” said Clayton, the director of water utilities for Columbia County.
The 70,000-acre lake – now more than 15 feet low – is one of two sources used by the county to provide drinking water to 95,000 residents.
As this year’s drought lingers into autumn, county officials are watching to see if intake pipes at its Clarks Hill Water Treatment Plant will remain usable.
The backup plan, which has never been used, involves a floating platform with auxiliary pipes that could be pushed into deeper water, enabling the plant to continue to maintain its 8 million gallon per day withdrawal.
For now, the equipment is in storage.
“We wouldn’t pull the trigger to do this until later March, when the chances of winter rains are pretty much gone,” he said. “But we’re ready if we need to.”
Although the drought is most noticeable at the reservoir, its signs and impacts can be found everywhere, said Sid Mullis, the director of the University of Georgia’s extension office in Richmond County.
“I was leading a fall foliage walk last weekend at the Augusta Canal headgates, and we were pointing things out, mainly dead pine trees,” he said.
Drought doesn’t instantly kill trees, but it makes them more susceptible to disease and insect infestations.
Residents are likely to encounter more dead trees in the coming year.
“We have two previous summers that were record-setting as far as the numbers of days above 90 degrees, and we’re going into this fall with almost no rain,” Mullis said. “There is no doubt it adds to the stress of these trees.”
Mark Raines, the Georgia Forestry Commission’s regional forest health specialist, said pines aren’t the only species stressed by a drought that might persist through the winter.
“We are seeing trees dying from drought stress in some areas of the CSRA,” he said. “It’s mainly pockets, and in extremely sandy sites.”
Commonly affected species, he added, include oaks, hickory and American beech.
Drought-stressed hardwoods often succumb to diseases such as Hypoxylon canker and Armillaria root rot, he said. “It’s like a person’s immune system; when it’s weakened they are more susceptible to colds.”
October and November have continued to be very dry, without the benefit of substantial tropical systems that can bring widespread rainfall.
October water consumption in Augusta averaged 36.45 million gallons per day – an increase of about 2 million gallons per day from October 2011, said Allen Saxon, the city’s assistant utilities department director.
Although recent long-term forecasts indicated a weak El Niño system that could bring above-average rainfall to the region next year, the national Climate Prediction Center dropped that outlook last week, said Nyasha Dunkley, Georgia’s deputy state climatologist.
“That’s not very good news for Georgia, as we are still trying to climb out of this multiyear drought,” she said, adding that Augusta’s two-year rainfall deficit, which totals 27.99 inches, is the driest period ever recorded.
Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, are trying to slow the decline of the lake by curbing flows from Thurmond Dam into the Savannah River.
The lake’s full pool, 330 feet above sea level, is a long way off – with current forecasts calling for its continued decline.
Even if the lake does not fall any further this year, the 2012 low point reached this week – 314.85 feet above sea level – ranks as the eighth-lowest yearly low point since record-keeping began six decades ago. Computed as an annual average, 2012’s persistently low levels are the sixth-lowest in the lake’s history.
After the dam was completed, the lake was filled for the first time in October 1952, only to fall to its all-time low – 296.40 feet above sea level — a few years later, on Feb. 3, 1956.