Weather

Rain Dents, But Doesn't Bust Drought

Posted October 26, 2007

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— Parts of North Carolina saw heavy rain and thunderstorms Friday, and forecasters say the storm total for Raleigh could top 4 inches by the time the rains end Saturday. But while the rain made a dent in the drought, experts cautioned it will take many more inches and months before the drought is officially busted.

The heavy rain also forced many area high schools to postpone their Friday night football games. (A complete list can be found on the Football Friday section.)

North Carolina benefited for several days from a "tropical feed of moisture along the Eastern seaboard," WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said. On Thursday, 1.79 inches of rain came down on the capital city, and the total through Friday evening was 3.17 inches.

A low was expected to move close to the Triangle Friday night, possibly bringing a thunderstorm or two, Fishel predicted. Rain will move out from the Triangle by Saturday morning and be followed by clearing.

"Everybody’s gotten a thorough soaking, looks like things will begin to dry out late tonight and tomorrow morning, and then we head into an extended period of dry weather," Fishel said.

Areas west of Raleigh have received the most rain from the recent storms, including Burlington, Asheboro and Sanford, with totals topping 6 inches in some locales. Duplin County received 6.1 inches by Friday evening, while Burlington had 4.20 inches of rain by noon Friday.

Rain amounts varied greatly, even within the same county, based on unofficial observations from the Community Rain Collaborative, a non-profit network of volunteer weather observers. For example, Zebulon had .92 inches of rain through 8 a.m. Friday, while a station in Garner had 3.3 inches of rain. Both towns are in Wake County.

The smallest amount of rain recorded in the network through 8 a.m. Friday was .60 in Smithfield, while a Goldsboro station had 3.86 inches of rain.

Rain Dents Drought

WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said she does not expect the rain to affect statewide drought conditions. Despite the first substantial rainfall in months, negative totals also need to be accounted for. Over the coming months, the state needs to erase its current deficient and get its normal winter rainfall of 10 inches.

For example, Raleigh's rainfall deficit was lowered to 6.88 inches by Friday, but the city needs that amount, plus 10 inches of usual rain, to fill the dwindling water supply at reservoirs.

Bottom line: North Carolina needs between 15 and 25 inches of rain and six to 12 months to recover fully from the drought.

"What we need is sustained, frequent rainfall over a period of time to help recharge groundwater supplies, the streams and the reservoirs," state climatologist Ryan Boyles said. Rain would best come in two- or three-day stretches every week through January, Boyles said, adding, "And that's not going to happen."

"We would have to become like Seattle," said Syd Miller, a water resources manager.

Growing population and urban areas are straining the water resources, exacerbating the effects of the drought, said Miller, who works for the Triangle J Council of Governments, which advises 34 Triangle communities on water use.

"One thing people have to remember is (that) we're placing a higher level of demand on natural systems today than has ever been placed on these systems before," Miller said.

"We should never let up on our conservation measures," said James Stovall, a hydrologist and professor of forestry at North Carolina State University. Population growth, development and lower-than-normal rainfall means that water supply will be a long-term issue for the region.

So just because the skies opened up does not mean we should let the taps flow, water experts said.

"The more we can conserve now, the better it'll improve our chances for next time," Boyle said.

Local Communities Welcome Rain

The rain brought especially welcome relief to Siler City, which was facing a 60-day water supply. The Rocky River Reservoir had gained 14.5 inches by mid-morning Thursday, Town Manager Joel Brower said.

Unprecedented Stage 4 restrictions, including water rationing, automatically come into effect if the reservoir dips below 15 feet lower than normal. Earlier this week, levels were more than 13 feet below normal.

Durham announced that as its reservoirs rose over the past few days, its residents have also been cutting back on use, by a little over 21 percent this month.

"While we cannot classify the rain that has fallen and is anticipated to fall through tomorrow afternoon as a drought busting event, this system has certainly made a positive impact on our water supply and will extend our days of premium water supply," Durham City Manager Patrick Baker said.

Cary has also been helping Durham through the water crisis. A water plant in Cary pumps about 2 million gallons a day from Jordan Lake to Durham. The cities have an agreement under which they trade water whenever the other community is in need.

Restrictions remain in place, though, and Durham officials warned they see no reason to lessen then.

Wake County said its employees will be stepping up their water conservation efforts. Policies recommended on Thursday would have firefighters using less water in training, ambulances washed only when necessary and all outdoor irrigation with non-reclaimed water stopped.

"Washing fire trucks virtually every day is part of firehouse culture in the U.S.," Ray Echevarria, Wake County's fire and rescue director, said. "The drought has forced firefighters to abandon that tradition in favor of the 'dirty-vehicle-is-a-civic-duty' water conservation approach."

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