WNC dust bowl

Cut your shower short and listen up: We’re all dried up.

That little bit of rain Western North Carolina received while Southern California burned? A drop in a big, dry bucket: As of Nov. 1, the Drought Management Advisory Council was reporting 82 of the state’s 100 counties as experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought. Buncombe County is on the “exceptional” list—the worst category.

Those figures include every single county in WNC, as well as our next-door neighbors in much of Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

That’s right: Buncombe County is on the list. Yet on Oct. 15, when Gov. Mike Easley called on North Carolina municipalities to lead efforts to curb all nonessential water use, our local and regional media barely mentioned it, and local governments sent out few (if any) public warnings. An Oct. 16 Asheville Citizen-Times article did quote Easley, speaking at the N.C. League of Municipalities’ annual conference, as saying the “situation is particularly dire” in Robbinsville, Marshall and Tryon, all of which are under mandatory restrictions. A week later, another Citizen-Times report spotlighted homeowners whose wells and springs were drying up. There’s been a sprinkling of articles in other regional media outlets too.

Still, the underlying message seems to be that Asheville has somehow been immune to all this. After all, the North Fork Reservoir is a mere 20.5 feet below the spillway, and according to Water Resources Director David Hanks, “We’re probably going to be OK.” Meanwhile, according to a short report in the Oct. 20 Xpress, the city has—rather quietly—asked residents to cut back on showers; avoid letting the water run while brushing teeth, washing dishes and rinsing vegetables; run full, not partial washing-machine loads; and so on.

I’m not sure we realize how potentially serious this crisis is. We’re PROBABLY going to be OK? How reassuring is that? Or will we be like Atlanta—waking up after years of poor planning and unchecked growth and demanding “our fair share of local resources,” effectively telling everyone downstream, “To heck with you”? Never mind that those folks downstream of Atlanta’s Lake Lanier need drinking water, too.

I grew up in a coastal Alabama town that normally gets more rain than the Pacific Northwest (heck, much of modern Mobile was a swamp when Spanish explorers found it). Childhood excursions to the WNC mountains seemed equally humid: At the cabin, we’d hang our towels out to dry only to find them just as damp the next day.

It feels alien to live in a dry Southeast. These days, every trip home takes me past the ever-lower, now-barely-trickling Laurel River in Madison County. The creek downhill from my home resembles a dry, rocky riverbed I once saw in Phoenix. My old business partner’s pond is now just a mud flat that may not be able to sustain next spring’s tadpoles.

Worse yet, no one seems to be paying attention—not even me, at times. Complacent about the health and depth of my well, I turned on the shower one morning as usual, then got sidetracked by some mundane housekeeping tasks. Suddenly, I realized I had just let the water run for five minutes when I wasn’t even in the shower; all that precious, pristine water was swirling down the drain.

I imagine Hazel Fobes would give me a good talking to.

Dubbed “the grand matron of all local activists,” she inspired me when I was reporting on local politics for Xpress from 1994 to 2002. Her particular passion was water. Fobes was active in Citizens for Safe Drinking Water (the group that thwarted local plans to tap the polluted French Broad River), served on the Water Efficiency Task Force, attended almost every meeting of the Regional Water Authority, and regularly, persistently, doggedly showed local government leaders the error of their ways.

Fobes had lived in India during her husband’s tenure with UNESCO, and she often told how she’d met a local villager who walked nearly a mile every day to fetch water for her family’s needs. One day, as Fobes was rinsing carrots in the sink, the woman cried, “Shame on you!” chastising her for wasting water.

Long about now, Hazel Fobes is probably crying, “Shame on us!” How quickly we forget. During Asheville’s 1998 drought, we had to buy water from Hendersonville. But who could we buy water from now, with the whole region suffering from drought?

With a big reservoir and a water-treatment plant on the Mills River, Asheville-area residents and businesses may be feeling a little too comfortable. But the National Climatic Data Center is predicting that this little drought will persist at least till January. So let me close by quoting Fobes (see “Pristine Water, Turbid Politics” by Mickey Mahaffey, April 24, 2002 Xpress):

“Water and air must be guarded, protected and improved in order that humanity can survive and be healthy and at peace. … Whenever the air quality is in a healthy condition and the water quality is excellent and affordable, then the economy will flourish, jobs will be more plentiful. It is essential that citizens work collectively, in unison, toward these goals. We can ill afford to put our wants and pleasures above this common good.”

An upcoming meeting offers a chance to keep current on the local drought (see box). And in the meantime, remember: Don’t stay in the shower too long!

[Freelance writer Margaret Williams survived eight years of covering local politics in Asheville.]


Not a drop to drink

The Drought Management Advisory Council will hold a Regional Drought Meeting Thursday, Nov. 8, at the Asheville Civic Center. Although it’s primarily for local officials, the meeting is open to the public; registration starts at 8 a.m., and the meeting will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

You can also find regularly updated data at www.ncdrought.org (the Drought Management Advisory Council) and www.ncdc.noaa.gov (the National Climatic Data Center, based in Asheville).

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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3 thoughts on “WNC dust bowl

  1. craig

    In Winston-Salem, we’re hearing statements from officials (and media outlets), that the drought’s effects aren’t as severe here as they are in surrounding communities. Yet some of those communities are understandably trying to mitigate the impact of the drought by purchasing water from other systems, including Winston’s. So I think we’re all going to feel the effects at some point. I appreciate the governor’s warning, but I just don’t know how it will alter the habits of most of us who have never experienced a cataclysmic weather event and are not sure where we’re headed now.

  2. john

    Naw, the drought is just a big Liberal Lie. Just ask Ralph Roberts. He is Go(o)d

  3. Margaret Williams

    We’ve received a tad more rain since I wrote this commentary and since it was published, but it’s still not much. Asheville remains slightly insulated, due to its huge North Fork Reservoir (kudos to the city fathers who bought and developed it last century!). But last week I came ’round the bend on my country road and found 2 folks in a pickup truck, siphoning water out of the low-low creek into a cow-sized container on their flat bed.

    And this weekend I flew over the area. Every lake ’round here is ringed by a wide reddish high-and-dry buffer. Whether it’s La Nina or long-term climate change, something’s up, folks.

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