Got Drought?

North Carolina is the only state in the country where every part of the state is in a designated Drought condition. Until August ‘07 North Carolina had been spared the worst effects of Southeastern US drought conditions centered on Alabama and spreading into neighboring states, notably Georgia. As of last week, every part of North Carolina was designated as either D2 Drought, Severe, D3 Drought , Extreme or D4 Drought, Exceptional by the USDA Drought Monitor. No part of North Carolina met the criteria for D1 Drought, Moderate. Last week 46% of the state was found to be in D4 Exceptional Drought conditions, a slight decrease from 49% the previous week. Every other state in the country has at least some area designated D0 Abnormally Dry or better. Even if you’ve been living under a rock and have missed the media attention you can’t have failed to notice the drying earth beneath you.

In spite of very recent precipitation (half normal rates) North Carolina is facing a water resource problem that is more than transitory and is compounded by divergent trajectories of supply and demand. Last Saturday a community Water Forum was held in Raleigh at the NCSU McKimmon Center by WakeUP Wake County to address water challenges and to examine the broad range of interrelated issues involved. The Forum was co-sponsored Capital Group Sierra Club, City of Raleigh, NC Conservation Network, Neuse River Foundation, Triangle Community Foundation, UNC Water Resource Research Institute, Wake Audubon, Wake League of Women Voters and several individual sponsors including my wife and myself.

The Forum attended by 250-300 people, including city, county and state leaders, covered a lot of ground focused on Wake County and applicable to the whole state and in turn was covered by a lot of media:
• WTVD: Wake County Forum on Water Woes Draws Hundreds
• WTVD: Hundreds attend water crisis forum
• NBC 17: Group Hosts Meeting To Share Drought Tips
• News 14: Forum asks, "Will the water run out?" (Video)
• Newsobserver: Water woes draw crowd

Some of the presentations have been posted online by WakeUP Wake County:
Bill Holman (Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions (Duke University)
Mary Brice (Co-Chair, City of Raleigh Water Conservation Task Force)
Tommy Esqueda (Director Environmental Services Department Wake County Government)
David Moreau (Director of the Water Resources Research Institute of the University of North Carolina)
Chris Goudreau (NC Wildlife Resources Commission) (updated entry)

While some officials are trying to dismiss long-term water concerns, treating the drought as an anomalous event, they can’t seem to agree whether it is an 800-year or 113-year event. Of course the NC population curve didn’t start its upward climb until about 500 years ago and the only event most people care about is when supply does not meet demand. Raleigh Planning Director Mitch Silver asked, somewhat rhetorically, somewhat defensively, if any city had ever run out of water. Dr David Moreau responded that most municipalities respond to drought before such events occur but did point out that New Orleans during Katrina and eastern NC towns during Floyd lost public water supply due to flooding.

Duke Professor Rob Jackson saw no ambiguity in this drought event. He described the drought as an episodic event caused by elevated temperatures which increased demand, coupled with decreased precipitation to meet that demand. Our normal sources of moisture, the Jet Stream and the Gulf Stream, have been passing us by. He sees the increased intensity of such episodic events as consistent with predictions of global climate change and only sees more of them, without human intervention.

Regardless of the episodic nature of drought events it is clear that at current rates of consumption and current population growth rates North Carolina will approach the limits of safe yield of current and future water supplies. The margin of error for drought events is becoming narrower and NC per capita water use is high relative to other parts of the country. Conservation is essential to future growth and response to drought.

In a telling slide Tommy Esqueda, Director, Wake County Environmental Services compared normal potable water use by Cary households to that of Cary households using reclaimed municipal water for irrigation systems. The increased use by typical households of treated drinking water for outdoor use during summer months (ie lawn irrigation)was clearly visible and clearly a target for reduction or substitution with reclaimed or recycled water.

Due to the drought NC DENR is rapidly expanding the permitting of reclaimed water under current rules. Reclaimed water is treated wastewater effluent that is normally discharged to waterways but, with a little extra treatment, can be used for a variety of non-potable purposes. This is not to be confused with graywater which must be treated before use under current health rules and building codes.

The widespread use of rainwater collection faces some obstacles, though not insurmountable. Under current building codes rainwater can not be used in plumbing systems without separate piping and with some form of treatment, similar to graywater systems. Such rainwater harvesting system exists in the Rashkis Elementary School and Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill and in the new Chapel-Hill Carroboro High School. The new Northern Guilford High School uses treated rainwater for toilet fixture flushing and also uses a “living machine” to treat sanitary waste from which treated effluent is also used for subsurface irrigation of playfields.

Widespread use of these systems will require fine tuning of building codes and economic incentives, such as conservation tax credits or tiered rates for consumption that penalize profligate use of tap water. At the consumer level the obstacles may be more immediate for users who can not afford a $100 rain barrel or the cost for a plumber to install otherwise inexpensive low-flow devices. Municipal water systems will need to figure out how to get through the initial cost barrier ad may need to use rebates in conjunction with increased or tiered consumption rates.

Community well systems run by private companies are not under the control of counties, municipalities or DENR. They are regulated by the NC Utilities Commission and conservation measures can not be mandated without going through the Utilities Commission. DENR regulations require minimum flow rates for wells but there are no maximum limits. Large drawdowns by community well systems can cause the individual wells of neighboring families, businesses and institutions to run dry. This may be addressable as a public health issue if individuals on private wells have no water for sanitation purposes but will have to be addressed through the General Assembly to give counties some measure of control over community water systems.

The Tennessee Valley Authority reported a quarterly loss of $17 million attributed to drought conditions in the South causing a reduction in hydroelectric power generation. One TVA nuclear reactor in Alabama was shut down briefly last summer due to drought conditions. Both nuclear and coal-fired power generation plants depend on copious amounts of water for steam generation and cooling. They require a stable flow of cool water, some of which is lost to evaporation with the balance discharged back downstream from the source with elevated temperatures within an environmentally acceptable range to avoid cooking the ecosystem. Drought can reduce flow, elevate intake temperatures, lower water levels below intakes and reduce the rate of discharge thus limiting the power generation capacity of existing power plants and construction of new plants. Water and power are inextricably linked. In fact an estimated 20% of municipal electricity consumption is used to treat and pump water and wastewater.

Because water doesn’t respect political boundaries many of the solutions to water woes will require regional cooperation at a level that does not currently exist in North Carolina. While some water systems have rudimentary connections to their neighbors the distribution of water at a regional level is haphazard and cumbersome. Regionalism has been suppressed with the decline in Federal funding of regional infrastructure projects and the tug-of-war between the state and local governments over funding and responsibilities. As with transportation the most efficient use of our water resources will come with regional cooperation that avoids a mad scramble to the bottom of the sediment pond.


This is excellent Greg

Thank you for putting this in writing for those of us who could not attend. Union County is in trouble, but we might have a bit of a reprieve. It seems the FBI is interested in how the final sewer hookups were meted out to businesses and developers. Rumor has it that they are investigating if those went to the highest bidder....if you know what I mean. Much of Union County soil is not suitable for septic systems and growth is going to slow dramatically. This might just give us time to get our water situation under control. It's so bad the county government has sought permission to limit ground water use. (I think they were trying to limit new wells drilled for landscaping?)

Almost everyone I know is doing their part - obeying watering bans, limiting/timing showers, buying rain barrels, etc. My friends and I are putting in drought tolerant shrubs and plants. I've even trained my family to chill their drinks instead of using ice, but if they must use ice it is never dumped down the sink, but tossed into the house plants. I actually think my Ficus likes rum and coke. :)

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

What a great report Greg.

I think that this drought is much worse than we can possibly imagine. People are not going to stand up and take notice until it effects them personally. Here in Chapel Hill, I would like to see the city or county or whomever give out tickets to people with nice, green lawns. There should be no way that as the summer kicks in people should be watering their lawns. I also think they need to consider raising the price of water SIGNIFICANTLY. I know that my family would be even more responsible if the price of water was 5-times greater.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

Power generation and water

Good article. Worth noting: generating electricity with wind power not only produces no global warming pollution, but uses no water. You can get the full lowdown on this issue from a Wind Powering America fact sheet, The Wind-Water Nexus (a Department of Energy publication).

Thomas O. Gray
American Wind Energy Association

Power Generation, Water and Conservation Measures


I've been after my legislators on the very subject of wind and solar generation at the household level. NC has all sorts of grants and low-interest loans for municipalities and small businesses to produce clean energy, but nothing at all for the average walking-around person. I find it mind-boggling that the means for co-generation are available to those who don't want them, yet for those of us who do, the cost is often prohibitive and there are no programs for getting in. I live way out in the country, so grid-independence is obviously of great importance to me. (Try living out where I do when there's an ice storm and it takes 3 weeks for the co-op to get around to you.)

So far, my pleas to my legislators (both Dem, by the way) have so far fallen on completely deaf ears. It would appear that the General Assembly don't really care what affects the consumer, so long as their business patrons are happy.

Back on topic of the drought. The GA are considering metering private wells. Of course, I and my rural neighbors are completely up in arms (some of my neighbors, literally; think NC Regulators). Obviously the GA have collectively lost their freaking minds.

First: if one lives on a well, one must conserve. No water, no habitable home. No habitable home and no water, your land value just hit zero. Nobody wants to be homeless.

Second: our water usage is already tied to electricity usage. At the rising cost of electricity, one is quite mindful of throwing 220V literally down a hole in the ground.

Third: I've had many conversations lately about rural well metering with my neighbors. Most of us already use water restrictors on our sinks and showers. Most of us use dishwashers instead of washing dishes by hand (5-7 gallons as opposed to 12-15 gallons). Most of us have already employed tactics to reduce the amounts held in toilet tanks.

Fourth: We don't water our yards anyway. If the grass grows, it grows. If it doesn't, then that's one less chore (and I despise mowing anyway). Foofy landscaping is for city folks. We're very frugal with watering gardens, since we DO depend on gardens to supplement our food. Absolutely depend on them. But we are extremely careful about how, how much, and when those are watered. Raleigh has no right to take food off my table.

We've already had to self-regulate. It's not as if there is any municipality or government who is willing to assist us if our wells run out. Rural folks are always the last to get any attention or advocacy. Our only alternatives would be to try and drill another well (at around $10/ft and down 300-700 feet... YOU pencil that out. My pocketbook doesn't have numbers that big in it.) or to move.

Neither of those are options.

Those of us in the rural communities that are specifically being targeted by well-metering can't afford to be wasteful. It's not exactly as if we're Raleigh millionaires who can afford to sit on their fat arses and dream up useless legislation. It is invasive; it serves no purpose; it will not conserve a drop of water; and it is most definitely viewed as dismally as the Patriot Act or warrantless wiretapping -- that is, a baseless invasion of privacy.

If they want to manage the creeks and streams, I have no problem with that. There are several streams that originate on my property and feed a major creek. Nothing is stopping me from holding every bit of water that pops out of these artesian springs, except that I'm aware that there are city people downstream from me who might appreciate that I'm helping to keep their water supply going. I'm already paying to pump and treat water I own. I don't need Raleigh coming on to my property and telling me I'm not doing things to suit them. Universally, my neighbors feel the same.

If the GA passes that ill-thought-out rural well-metering scheme, you can expect riots. As one fellow two counties over from me said on the radio this morning, "I'm well watered and well-armed". That is a nearly universal sentiment.

Any legislator who passes this affront will be replaced in the next election cycle. Phones and emails have been flying all day and that is one guarantee we can make. We have organized, we're in touch with one another and we vote. Take it to the bank.

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.
Mohandas Gandhi

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.
Mohandas Gandhi

Hi you!

Good to see you stopping by!

Hey you back!

Apologies for my extended absence! Well, life happened in the meantime, but it's mostly good. Good to "see" you all again!

Now, if I can keep my neighbors from strangling a couple of Dems in the GA, life will be even better :)

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.
Mohandas Gandhi

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.
Mohandas Gandhi


I just got a reply from my representative, the Hon Bill Faison. The radio story from this morning was wrong: there is no such consideration of rural well-metering before either chamber of the GA. If such a proposal does hit the floor, there will be strong opposition voiced. I'm back on the phones to my neighbors to let them know not to listen to that particular station again. (Somebody's about to lose a big chunk of share. I feel no sympathy.)

As the tagline says:

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.
Mohandas Gandhi

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.
Mohandas Gandhi

How much water do fish need?

I've included a newly uploaded presentation from Chris Goudreau (NC Wildlife Resources Commission) called Managing Water Wisely: Environmental Considerations.

Sometimes water availability is framed as "How much water do fish need?" meaning we could use everything else. Of course it's not so simple. Determining water body flow requirements is complex, involving ecology and public policy. There are many kinds of flow required for ecosystems.

There are five riverine components to be considered when setting environmental flow requirements: Water Quality, Biology, Geomorphology, Hydrology and Connectivity (ie aquifers, streams and flood plains)

You need the right flow at the right time and the right temperature for the right duration with a pattern in a natural frequency and rate of change.