Showers and thunderstorms that moved through Western North Carolina in the past week or so haven’t resolved a basic problem: Buncombe County and most of WNC remains in “D1” status — “moderate drought.” It’s the second lowest of five levels (D0 or abnormally dry is the lowest, and D4 or exceptional drought is the highest). For D1, North Carolina’s Drought Management Advisory Council strongly urges action.
In WNC, Canton and Clyde recently implemented voluntary conservation measures, asking customers to cut back on nonessential uses, such as watering lawns and washing cars. To serve its 3,500 customers, Canton draws water from the Pigeon River. It also sells part of its supply to Clyde for distribution to that town’s 1,200 users.
But thus far, Asheville metro-area residents — most served by the public water system — haven’t faced similar measures. “We’re actually fortunate that we pull water from three locations: the North Fork reservoir, the Bee Tree reservoir and the Mills River,” says Ron Kerns, operations manager for the city’s Water Resources Department. “We run a computerized drought model several times per week, which tells us when we need to conserve — and we’re a long way from that now.”
To predict future conditions, the department’s drought model evaluates current water levels, forecasted precipitation, past lake levels and recent rainfall. In times of reduced rainfall or shrinking lake levels, the city’s drought-management response calls for one of three levels of water conservation: The first features voluntary measures to reduce consumption; the second requires a set of mandatory measures that prohibit watering lawns and gardens and washing cars, among other things; and the third phase imposes surcharges on users to encourage water conservation.
None of these precautions has been called for in Asheville, city officials report.
Still, 37 of the state’s 100 counties were listed as being in moderate drought as of Aug. 17. Four northeast counties are suffering severe drought (D3), and 36 are abnormally dry (D0). But perhaps more precipitation is on the way: The U.S. Drought Monitor predicts that drought conditions will improve in WNC through November.
The inconvenient truth: Climate change in WNC
This year, the three-month period May through July was the warmest on record for WNC since record keeping began in 1895, according to the National Climate Data Center, which is headquartered in Asheville. The same is true for the Southeast region as a whole, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Warming and drying are two changes predicted for Western North Carolina as the climate heats up, according to a 2008 UNCA report, “The Reality of Global Warming (Climate Change) and Its Potential Impact on North Carolina.” The report (see it at http://bit.ly/bRoyre) finds that the primary effects of climate change in the state include:
• Extreme weather: Precipitation will be less frequent, but more intense when it arrives. In other words, the recently observed pattern of drought punctuated by hurricane damage is expected to persist.
• Hotter days and nights, extending into longer heat waves, will continue to increase.
• The combination of drought and heat will lead to a greater chance of wildfires, putting people’s lives and property at risk.
These possibilities also suggest a big impact on energy demands, water resources, emergency response and a host of other issues, according to the report, which notes that these are all “big ticket” economic issues that state government and North Carolina citizens must be prepared to deal with. The report says UNCA is working to “build climate change literacy” and help turn this knowledge into public policy and actions at the community level.
Warren Wilson College 14th greenest
The Sierra Club recently announced the results of its fourth annual Coolest Schools survey. The nation’s oldest and largest environmental organization sent an 11-page questionnaire to 900 colleges and universities across the United States, asking them to detail their sustainability efforts. Of the 162 responses received, Warren Wilson ranks 14th.
This year’s analysis gave added weight to each school's energy supply and considered nine other categories in measuring a school's commitment to sustainability: efficiency, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, administration, financial investments and a catch-all called "other initiatives."
According to the Sierra Club, the point of this exercise is to create competition, generate awareness and “celebrate the fact that this many colleges even have a sustainability officer.”
In its top-100 list, the Sierra Club mentions Warren Wilson’s six-acre organic garden and the fact that about one-third of its food comes from sources within 500 miles of the school.
“It’s pretty exciting for us,” says Margo Flood, director of the Environmental Leadership Center at Warren Wilson. “And it comes two weeks after being named to the Princeton Review’s Green Honor Roll [18 U.S. colleges working toward environmental sustainability], so it’s been sort of a banner month for us. We’re feeling very honored and also challenged to live even more deeply into these commitments.”
Unlike many of the colleges and universities that top these two lists, Warren Wilson doesn’t have a large budget for green retrofits and conservation programs. “This is a shared recognition that comes from real toil,” says Flood, referring to the school’s “triad” program of work, service and academics. “I love that part of it.”
For more information, visit the Sierra Club website, http://bit.ly/ddoJMG.
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