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Drought Concerns Spread to the Fishes

Posted January 26, 2008

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— A proposal for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cut back on the amount of water it releases from Falls Lake worries environmentalists about its impact.

The Raleigh City Council voted in early January to ask the Corps to reduce discharges from Falls Lake into the Neuse River by 40 percent to 9 million gallons a day. The Corps manages the dam at Falls Lake, which also serves as Raleigh's primary reservoir.

State environmentalists, however, warned that a reduction of that magnitude could have devastating effects on rivers and streams, many of which are already drying up due to the drought.

"I think that it's important for people to remember the big picture," Susan Massengale, spokeswoman for the state Division of Water Quality, said.

Eighteen of the 20 streams in Chatham County that the Division of Water Quality monitors have completely dried up, Massengale said. Pictures of Terrells and Collins creeks, taken before and after the drought, show rushing waterways turned into exposed, dried water beds covered in leaves.

The agency worries that reducing the amount of water flowing downstream could dry up more creeks and smaller water bodies that depend on the Neuse, Massengale said. Fish, birds, numerous small creatures and even bugs depend on that water to survive.

"If you cut the food chain anywhere, down the line, it's going to have impacts," Massengale said.

Another danger is that salt water from the ocean could move up rivers if not enough fresh water is moving downstream, Massengale said. That could lead to fish kills.

Raleigh requested the Corps to reduce charges when Falls Lake is 8½ feet below normal, a record low. City officials believe Raleigh's share of the water in Falls Lake will run out by mid May if there is no significant rain before then.

In November, Raleigh started a project it said would keep Neuse River's flow intact for communities downstream. Raleigh began pumping 27 cubic feet of water a second from Lakes Benson and Wheeler into the Neuse, and the Corps agreed to reduce discharges by that amount.

Communities downstream on the Neuse River, including Goldsboro, Wake Forest and Franklin County, have fought Raleigh's efforts to reduce discharges.

Raleigh officials have also asked the Corps to raise Raleigh's allocation of water in Falls Lake, currently at 13 percent, to 17 percent.

On Friday, the Corps announced that the federal government had given Raleigh approval to drain and treat water from the sedimentation layer of Falls Lake. Engineers were working out details for the project, which will be the first time the Corps has taken on that type of task.

The Corps says dredging Falls Lake is not a short-term solution for the drought, because getting approval is a years-long process. A state government representative must ask Congress to fund an environmental study, which also usually requires local funds and typically takes five years.

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