Rivers dry up, industries fret as parts of South suffer in historic drought

Sunday, July 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) _ Mayor Frank Willis is exasperated that his already struggling region's economic future lies in dwindling lakes 100 miles away in another state.

Without significant rain, state officials say, several reservoirs along the Yadkin River in North Carolina will run dry by mid-September. Those waters feed the Pee Dee River, which provides industry and drinking water for the million or so people who live along its basin in northeast South Carolina.

If the reservoirs run out, water levels along the Pee Dee could drop 80 percent, leaving the river useless for manufacturing and water plants. That would cripple a region whose unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, well above the state average of 5.5 percent.

``With the bad economic times we already have, something like this could lead to economic disaster,'' said Willis, who estimates up to 20,000 jobs could be lost if the river slows to a trickle for several weeks.

The Pee Dee's plight is the most extreme example of a Southern drought entering its fifth year. The dry spell in the South isn't as widespread as the four-year drought in the West. But the effects for some are severe.

Hardest hit is an area stretching from central Georgia through the middle of South and North Carolina and into central Virginia. Some areas are 60 inches below normal rainfall.

While farmers are suffering this year, for most of the drought they have been spared by rain that has come at the right time, keeping prices reasonable, said South Carolina Agriculture Department spokesman Wayne Mack.

The worst effects are harder to see. Underground, wells are drying up as not enough rain makes it through the soil to recharge the water table. Lake levels are well below normal, exposing stumps and debris.

Nearly half of the rivers in North and South Carolina are at record low levels. At least 35 municipalities in North Carolina and 20 water systems in South Carolina have issued mandatory water restrictions while all of Georgia has restricted outdoor watering for two years.

``The only drought that compares to this one is the one in the '50s,'' South Carolina drought coordinator Hope Mizzell said.

Mizzell said the 1950s drought was statistically more serious. But as the South's population has grown in the past four decades, a decrease in water is now felt much more quickly because of higher demand.

Nowhere is the situation more dire than the Pee Dee. The river flows through tobacco fields, providing water for heavy manufacturers and a half-dozen water companies before heading into the Atlantic Ocean along the Grand Strand, South Carolina's No. 1 tourist destination.

Several businesses along the Pee Dee River have reported temporary shutdowns. If the Pee Dee River drops too low, a textile maker and a paper manufacturer along the river have already said they will have to close, eliminating at least 2,500 jobs.

It's not just industries that are worried. Several companies in Florence County send waste water to the county treatment plant, which discharges into the river. If the river flow gets too low, the county can't discharge enough water. ``And if we can't discharge, they can't keep operating,'' Willis said.

Forecasts through autumn provide little hope for relief. Normal or less than normal rainfall is predicted, which will not be enough to recharge rivers.

``Hopefully a nice tropical storm will come in from Mississippi and stay over us for a week,'' said Freddy Vang, the deputy director of the state Natural Resources Department's Land, Water and Conservation Division.

Forecasters predict more relief could come in the winter with a warming of Pacific Ocean waters called the El Nino effect. The last time the region as a whole had above normal rainfall was in the winter of 1998, when El Nino last affected global weather patterns, Mizzell said.

So far none of the water systems that use the Pee Dee River for their drinking water have had serious problems. But in Georgetown County, workers often operate their intake plants only during low tide because not enough freshwater comes from the Pee Dee basin to drive ocean water away.

Other water companies along the booming coast worry about salt water intrusion too. They all have wells to turn to, but groundwater supplies have been falling ever since the drought started.

That has officials like Georgetown City Administrator Boyd Johnson carefully watching the waters of the Pee Dee. ``We have all of our 10,000 citizens depending on it,'' he said.