Mills River inches closer to extreme drought conditions

HOW LOW WILL IT GO? Shown here on Sunday, Nov. 20, the Mills River in Henderson County supplies the city of Hendersonville with water. Asheville also draws some of its water from the river. If the flow goes below 30 cubic feet per second, emergency water restrictions will be triggered. Photo by Virginia Daffron

In his more than 30 years of service to Western North Carolina’s agricultural community, Marvin Owings Jr. says he’s never seen conditions as dry as these. “The real old-timers have all been telling me the same thing,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my tenure. It’s never been this dry for this long.”

Owings heads the N.C. Cooperative Extension branch in Henderson County, where he works to connect local agricultural communities to one another and to consumers.

Across WNC, the average monthly precipitation has declined since this summer, and the Mills River has sunk to record lows. According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrological Lab in Macon County, September precipitation totaled 0.79 inches, and October saw just 0.17 inches. Neither was a record-breaker, but together they constitute the driest recorded two-month period for the area.

The state’s Drought Management Advisory Council has been issuing weekly advisories for the last two months, and the drought has extended to the Piedmont. In North Carolina’s far western corner, Clay and Cherokee counties have reached “exceptional drought” levels — the most critical category.

Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk has been working with her City Council to develop plans in case the water shortage gets more severe but says she isn’t worried about implementing anything just yet.

“Right now there are no changes to our voluntary conservation status,” she reports. The Mills River “has stayed right around 50 cubic feet per second for the past several weeks, and we think it’s stabilizing.” A drought update issued by the city of Hendersonville on Nov. 18 listed the river’s level as 48 cfs.

Volk says she hopes the water level will hold steady in the coming weeks, but it’s typically closer to 70 cfs, so there’s still a significant shortfall. The level is being closely monitored, with every change reported to Volk. If it drops below 30 cfs, she says, the governor will declare a state of emergency, and more restrictions will be put in place.

At press time, the drought in Asheville and Buncombe County was rated “severe,” one step down from “extreme,” and wildfires in the far western counties continued to tear through tens of thousands of acres. In a drier environment, fires start more easily and burn longer. A Nov. 10 press release from Gov. Pat McCrory’s office links the recent fires surrounding Lake Lure, as well as dozens of other smaller fires in the area, to the combination of high pressure and lack of precipitation.

According to the state Climate Office, the last time Western North Carolina saw a drought of this magnitude was in 1930, and water levels didn’t fully recover for two years.

Some two dozen municipalities draw a portion of their water supplies from the French Broad River watershed, and 10 of them are now under at least voluntary drought restrictions. Emergency lines connect these areas to neighboring counties that have other water sources, but so far, there hasn’t been an official request to open any of those lines.

The N.C. Division of Water Resources’ Asheville office regulates 70 public water systems across the region. Asheville has two large reservoirs serving the city itself and three smaller towns: Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain and Woodfin. As of this writing, those reservoirs were not at risk (see sidebar, “Gauging Asheville’s Water Supply”). And while towns with more limited supplies might soon start feeling the pinch, local officials’ main concern is with outlying areas and farming communities.

“This drought is one that primarily affects agriculture, not water systems,” said Brian Long, spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in a Nov. 10 press release. The biggest question, he explained, is how farmers can continue to operate under any proposed restrictions.

“I’ve asked some of the growers that still would be irrigating their crops, and no one I’ve spoken to has had a problem with their water levels,” Owings reports. “But we could run into some serious problems when the green industry [growers who produce leafy greens that are needed year-round] goes into the winter. They depend on creeks, ponds or wells.”

Even a normal winter here is typically pretty dry, and heading into it with water already in short supply could spell trouble. But Owings says the state Department of Agriculture team is working with the federal government to secure funds as a safety net for farmers. So far, he hasn’t heard any complaints about well water dropping to dangerous levels, but unless there’s a significant spike in precipitation, the long-term effects of the drought will most likely become more serious.

“Unfortunately, we’re not looking at any appreciable rain anytime in the next week or so,” says Owings. “Not to say that isn’t going to happen, but these are commodities that would still need water consistently going to them through the next season, so we need to be prepared.” The federal money, which might come out of a disaster relief fund, would also help provide food for livestock.

Meanwhile, the French Broad and Mills River watersheds are also home to more than 100 endangered species. And according to RiverLink, an Asheville-based nonprofit, the eight-county French Broad watershed boasts what some say may be the world’s largest great blue heron population.

Chelcy Ford Miniat, project leader at the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, says the bigger picture “is seeing drier dry years, wetter wet years and longer rainless periods.”

And though Owings says conditions are being watched closely, he’s not surprised by the drought. “There’s definitely a change in the weather pattern this year, but in my opinion, it’s all cyclical,” he says. “We’ve dealt with it before, and we’ll deal with it again.”


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