S.C.'s Dry Spell, Now in Fifth Year With No Relief in Sight, Might be Termed 'Extreme' in Some Areas

By Aaron Sheinin

Water restrictions loom as S.C. drought worsens and South Carolinians could face mandatory water restrictions by the end of the month if drought conditions don't improve, state officials said Monday.

And the forecast doesn't look good.

The state Drought Response Committee is expected to declare an "extreme" drought for at least part of the state when it meets July 24, said Morton Brilliant, Gov. Jim Hodges' spokesman.

If that happens, the committee - made up of representatives from the state departments of Natural Resources, Health and Environmental Control, Forestry, Agriculture and Emergency Management - likely will recommend that Hodges implement mandatory conservation measures, state climatologist Milt Brown said. The governor will visit Florence and other areas of the state Wednesday to gauge the effects of the drought, now in its fifth year. Florence and the Pee Dee region have been hardest hit, and that area is most likely to be declared in an extreme drought - the worst possible - Brilliant said.

"Everybody is in the same mess," Brilliant said. "The drought is pretty much statewide."

If an extreme drought is announced, Hodges can declare a state of emergency and order residents to restrict water usage. This could include limiting or prohibiting outdoor watering of plants and yards.

"Until people are limited in how much water they can use, they won't think the drought is that serious," Brown said. "The potential is there for things to get much worse."

As of Sunday, the state has had 20.87 inches of rain since Jan. 1, or about 6 inches less than normal. The state needs more than 15 inches of rain to end the drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officially, the entire state is in a severe drought, the third of four stages that the state climate office can declare. At the severe drought stage, water providers can begin conservation measures.

State officials say this is the worst drought since at least 1986 - and it could rival the devastating six-year dry spell in the early 1950s.

Some small water companies have asked users to water lawns on odd or even days, but as of earlier this month, larger providers hadn't taken those steps.

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

Seven S.C. streams already have reached 50-year lows. The Pee Dee River could be reduced to a trickle if North Carolina officials are allowed to hold more water in upstream artificial lakes.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman has declared the entire state a drought disaster area. That makes farmers and others engaged in agricultural enterprises eligible for federal low-interest loans.

Other affected businesses, such as marinas, are not eligible. The U.S. Small Business Administration offers loans for businesses affected by other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, but not for drought, Brilliant said. Hodges is working with U.S. Sens. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., and John Kerry, D-Mass., in hopes of changing those rules.

"We're certainly going to do what we can," Hollings' spokesman Andy Davis said. "It's a rough situation. You've got to entertain as many options as you can to address the needs that are out there."

Still, such changes would likely not come soon enough for local businesses. And low-interest loans are not the ideal answer, Brilliant said.

Business owners "are in a world of hurt," he said. "More debt is not necessarily what they need. We will work with the (state's congressional) delegation to try and secure more money for them."

The Senate version of a farm bill earlier this year included money for drought relief, but the Bush Administration and the House leadership opposed it. The money was not in the final legislation.

When the state drought committee meets July 24, members will consider the current situation, as well as short- and long-term drought forecasts. The committee "has been reluctant to go to 'extreme' too soon, because when you go to extreme, there are mandatory conservation measures," Brilliant said.

The drought has sapped much of the water Edgefield County farmer Larry Yonce needs to irrigate his peach crop.

"We are in critical shape," said Yonce, spokesman for J.W. Yonce & Sons, a major commercial peach operation.

Yonce's farm has 14 reservoirs, about 8 to 10 acres each in size. All are recharged by rainfall.

With little rain, Yonce is struggling.

"We have already pumped half of them to the lowest level possible," Yonce said.

The town of Chesterfield is also hurting. Its water reservoir is only one-third full and residents are under mandatory watering restrictions, said Mayor John Douglas.

The situation is worse than last year, he said. "We're several months behind where we were last year."

Ordinarily, the town sells water to the Chesterfield County Rural Water authority, but this year the town is buying water. That arrangement is sending the town's budget spiraling. Instead of making money off water sales, the town is spending it.

"So far, we've been able to absorb losses incurred with the drought, but we're looking at options at this point to see what we do," Douglas said.

Those options could include reducing other town services to save money.

The drought, though, hasn't hurt all farmers, said J. Powell Smith of the Lexington County Extension Office. With some crops, it has actually helped.

Most of the vegetable farms along U.S. 1 from Lexington into Aiken County have irrigation systems fed by wells or underground reservoirs, so lack of rainfall hasn't been a serious problem.

The drier air has made vegetables, especially large, leafy varieties, such as collards, less susceptible to disease, he said.