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Army Engineers Manage Lakes, Dams During Drought

Posted October 26, 2007

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— With drought drying up water supplies across the state, those who manage North Carolina's lakes and dams – the United States Army Corps of Engineers – have struggled to balance the competing demands for water supply and water quality.

Terry Brown, water control manager for the Wilmington district, said the Corps' goal is to make the best use of supplies in its reservoirs on the Roanoke, Neuse, Cape Fear and upper Yadkin basins.

"It looks like nature could be challenging us to the limit," Brown said. "We are certainly working hard to respond to the 'worst-case' eventuality that we get little or no rain in the coming months."

The Corps manages water flows from Falls Lake, Raleigh's water source. Levels in the lake are more than 8 feet below normal, and without significant rainfall, the lake could reach a zero-water supply balance by mid January 2008.

Despite that threat, the Corps has released more water from Falls Lake this October than it did during the drought in October 2002. Communities downstream depend on the Neuse, Brown said, and flows along that river are at their worst level in the 80 years data has been collected.

"This water serves to make sure that industries ... can continue to operate without causing serious pollution, it ensures that other communities downstream ... are getting good quality water, and it also preserves water flows and quality so that we do not see serious ecological damage, like fish kills," the Corps said in a release.

The Corps is working with the City of Raleigh to make use of former reservoirs, including Lake Benson, Lake Wheeler and Lake Johnson, to keep adequate flows into the Neuse. If January arrives without any rain, engineers are studying taping into the sedimentation pool of Falls Lake.

Dredging Falls Lake is not a practical short-term solution, Brown. Although the drought has lowered lake levels, getting approval to dredge is a years-long process. A government representative must ask Congress to fund an environmental study, which also usually requires local funds and typically takes five years.

"Dredging would only lower the total water level and not add water to storage. Or, as you might put it more bluntly: If we dug a deeper hole right now, all we'd have would be a deeper hole," the Corps said in a statement. "In the long term, dredging could potentially increase storage."

A study is in progress for Philpott and John H. Kerr Lake, key reservoirs in the Roanoke River basin. That study is in its fourth year and is jointly funded by North Carolina and Virginia.

Although levels in Jordan Lake are also close to 5 1/2 feet below normal, Cary, Chatham County and other communities that draw their water from it do not face the "imminent sum situation" those depending of Falls Lake do. That is largely a result of  cooperation between the communities and Corps after the drought of 2002, Brown said.

"Inter-community cooperation is also important at this time," Brown said. He pointed to Siler City, which is getting emergency water supplies trucked in by Chatham County.

Personal water conservation is the key to surviving the drought short term – although "nature has the last word," Brown said.

"But working together, we can make water supplies last a little longer. ... Stretching out water supplies may the key to keeping communities and industries functioning."


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  • richard2 Oct 27, 2007

    What are your long term solutions? Do you have any, if so tell us what they are. The public will give you some good ideas if you are willing to listen.

  • squid90 Oct 26, 2007

    Dont blame overuse of the lake by humans on the environmentalists (sic). The lakes are also used for flood control and recreation. Fishing is a recreational sport. The lakes habitat also attract water birds, eagles, osprey and other birds feeding on fish. The lakes are artifical lakes, not natural lakes. The habitat for wildlife living in or on the lake is also an artifical (not natural) habitat. Obscene overuse of water from the lakes is caused by humans. Humans can solve the low water levels in ways that wont affect the quality of the lakes wildlife.

  • GoldsboroWolf 98 Oct 26, 2007

    seaobin, the key word used in the article is "Environmental Study". The now exposed trees would normally provide a habitat for certain types of fish and water creatures. I don't disagree with you, but ironically you have to satisfy the environmentalists who are the same people screaming about not having enough water right now. If the lakes are going to be used primarily for utility purposes then I fear we have already lost the ability to have a "natural habitat".

  • SMR Oct 26, 2007

    The word dredge is not appropriate here. Why don't we proactively lower the bottom of the lake where it is already exposed. Especially on the upper portion of Falls Lake. Why doesn't the Corp of Eng. go in an remove the trees that are exposed and remove some of the dry land that is currently exposed. This would give us a safer lake for next summer and more water next year after the spring rains refill the water basin.

  • thefensk Oct 26, 2007

    Communities need to see this year's drought as a warning sign. Water conservation needs to be a year round and permanent effort, not just an emergency situation. Rotational lawn watering and car washing restrictions need to become part of the normal life pattern. Keeping a community on a standard practice of early stage restrictions can serve to extend the reserves even in the early phase of a drought like this.