The 45-year-old homeowner on Strom Thurmond Lake north of Augusta spent a couple of thousand dollars to be able to extend his dock several dozen feet because the water always seems to be below normal these days.
“I decided I was going to have to chase the lake if I was going to enjoy it,” said Ergle, whose home is on the lake along the South Carolina-Georgia state line. His grandfather bought the land for $500 in the 1950s when lake was built.
A drought has again parked over South Carolina, marking the ninth year in the last 11 that some part of the state has unusually dry weather. It’s a similar story in many areas of the Southeast.
Some part of the region has been in a severe drought since the summer of 2010, and the dry weather worries farmers, boaters and municipal water works that depend heavily on rivers and streams that feed lakes and reservoirs. Some hope the tropical storm that has soaked parts of Georgia and Florida will help a little.
Some researchers say forecasting weather patterns is good enough to more carefully control how much water goes into and out of the dozens of lakes controlled by dams created six decades ago. The water released from the dams is critical because it is often arbitrary, based on decades of averages, rather than of hour-by-hour monitoring that is possible with today’s technology.
Researchers also say farmers should adopt systems that put just the right amount of water in the right place at the right time.
“More and more people are using less and less of a natural resource and that only has a happy conclusion when you plan appropriately,” said Dennis Chastain, a naturalist and a member of South Carolina’s committee that has monitored drought for the past two decades.
Much of the southern two-thirds of Georgia is in an extreme or exceptional drought, the highest level, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought has crippled pecan and peanut crops, and cut back yields for cotton and corn last year.
This season most farmers are reporting fair or good conditions, in part because rains have come at the right time. But groundwater levels and deep soil moisture is still low after years of dry weather, said Joe McManus, assistant director of commodities for the Georgia Farm Bureau.
“We’re only a week away from a serious problem,” he said. “We still have a lot of growing to do before harvest time.”
The worst of the drought is also spreading slowly north and east into South Carolina and North Carolina. Dry weather has almost become the new normal in South Carolina, where the U.S. drought monitor has had some part of the state in at least a severe drought since last May, and for nearly four of the past six years. That followed a more than two-year drought at the turn of the century that had scientists estimating the Pee Dee River was going to run dry in weeks.
A scientist at North Carolina State University has developed a model that uses long-range forecasts and climate data from the past several decades and pairs it with stream flows and reservoir levels in hopes governments will use the information to better manage the levels of lakes controlled by dams and the rivers that flow downstream.
The model is currently only for two lakes near Raleigh. But Sankar Arumugam hopes to expand it once people see how careful control of the data can minimize the risk and assure that a reservoir like Jordan Lake never ends up in a crisis like it did a decade ago with officials wondering if the water supply could last more than a few months.
Adding how much water is released from the dams is critical.
“The weather forecast itself it not useful. You have to look at it with the storage capacity,” Arumugam said.
The Southeast isn’t in as dire straits as the Southwest. The Southeast gets plenty of rain, it just needs to do a better job of storing and using its water, said Dale Linvill, a retired Clemson University agricultural meteorologist.
Farmers can grow more crops on plastic and monitor the moisture in the soil better, so they can make sure crops get water only when they need it. Parking lots can be made with porous material so more of it can seep into the ground instead of simply running off to streams and rivers, Linvill said.
Linvill has reviewed more than a century of rainfall data for northwestern South Carolina. He said times were just as dry during comparable periods a century ago. The big difference is the region has a lot more people that need water.
“I’ve been telling people that, gee, we’ve got weather around the Upstate of the Carolinas now much like it was 100 years ago,” Linvill said. “But we’ve got short memories.”
At Strom Thurmond Lake, Ergle points to a rock about 20 feet from the current shoreline where he said he can remember kicking his feet in the water when he was a kid, before a combination of drought and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers policy to release more water downstream on the Savannah River drew down the lake significantly.
The lake has been at least 4 feet below full pool for 38 of the past 54 months and at least 6 feet below since September. The Corps projection shows a line going down through August, when the lake could drop an additional 3 or 4 feet.
Ergle said trees limbs and other obstacles are protruding through the water.
“I hate this because I love this lake. But there are so many things they have to think about,” Ergle said. “I still wonder if it’s this low because it’s dry or if it’s this low because the water needs to go somewhere else.”