Will Great Lakes Be Source For Southern Drought
FLORENCE, South Carolina (AP) -- Mayor Frank
Willis is exasperated that his already struggling region's
economic future lies in dwindling lakes 100 miles away
in another state.
Without significant rain, state officials say, several
reservoirs along the Yadkin River in North Carolina will
run dry by mid-September. Those waters feed the Pee Dee
River, which provides industry and drinking water for
the million or so people who live along its basin in northeast
If the reservoirs run out, water levels along the Pee
Dee could drop 80 percent, leaving the river useless for
manufacturing and water plants. That would cripple a region
whose unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, well
above the state average of 5.5 percent.
"With the bad economic times we already have, something
like this could lead to economic disaster," said Willis,
who estimates up to 20,000 jobs could be lost if the river
slows to a trickle for several weeks.
Southern drought enters fifth year
The Pee Dee's plight is the most extreme example of
a Southern drought entering its fifth year. The dry spell
in the South isn't as widespread as the four-year drought
in the West. But the effects for some are severe.
Hardest hit is an area stretching from central Georgia
through the middle of South and North Carolina and into
central Virginia. Some areas are 60 inches below normal
While farmers are suffering this year, for most of the
drought they have been spared by rain that has come at
the right time, keeping prices reasonable, said South
Carolina Agriculture Department spokesman Wayne Mack.
The worst effects are harder to see. Underground, wells
are drying up as not enough rain makes it through the
soil to recharge the water table. Lake levels are well
below normal, exposing stumps and debris.
Many rivers at record low levels
Nearly half of the rivers in North and South
Carolina are at record low levels. At least 35 municipalities
in North Carolina and 20 water systems in South Carolina
have issued mandatory water restrictions while all of
Georgia has restricted outdoor watering for two years.
"The only drought that compares to this one is the one
in the '50s," South Carolina drought coordinator Hope
Mizzell said the 1950s drought was statistically more
serious. But as the South's population has grown in the
past four decades, a decrease in water is now felt much
more quickly because of higher demand.
Nowhere is the situation more dire than the Pee Dee.
The river flows through tobacco fields, providing water
for heavy manufacturers and a half-dozen water companies
before heading into the Atlantic Ocean along the Grand
Strand, South Carolina's No. 1 tourist destination.
Several businesses along the Pee Dee River have reported
temporary shutdowns. If the Pee Dee River drops too low,
a textile maker and a paper manufacturer along the river
have already said they will have to close, eliminating
at least 2,500 jobs.
It's not just industries that are worried. Several companies
in Florence County send waste water to the county treatment
plant, which discharges into the river. If the river flow
gets too low, the county can't discharge enough water.
"And if we can't discharge, they can't keep operating,"
Forecasts through autumn provide little hope for relief.
Normal or less than normal rainfall is predicted, which
will not be enough to recharge rivers.
"Hopefully a nice tropical storm will come in from Mississippi
and stay over us for a week," said Freddy Vang, the deputy
director of the state Natural Resources Department's Land,
Water and Conservation Division.
Forecasters predict more relief could come in the winter
with a warming of Pacific Ocean waters called the El Nino
effect. The last time the region as a whole had above
normal rainfall was in the winter of 1998, when El Nino
last affected global weather patterns, Mizzell said.
So far none of the water systems that use the Pee Dee
River for their drinking water have had serious problems.
But in Georgetown County, workers often operate their
intake plants only during low tide because not enough
freshwater comes from the Pee Dee basin to drive ocean
Other water companies along the booming coast worry
about salt water intrusion too. They all have wells to
turn to, but groundwater supplies have been falling ever
since the drought started.
That has officials like Georgetown City Administrator
Boyd Johnson carefully watching the waters of the Pee
Dee. "We have all of our 10,000 citizens depending on
it," he said.