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HIGH ‘n’ DRY
SoVaNow.com / December 06, 2012Large expanses of Buggs Island Lake have turned from marine to muddy, and the outlook for the reservoir returning to normal lake levels is cloudy even if the skies aren’t.
“We don’t see any significant rain in the forecast for December and Kerr Lake levels continue to drop,” said Tony Young, water management chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District, which manages the 48,900 acre impoundment.
With the Buggs Island Lake down to around 293 feet sea level and climate watchers divided on the prospects for a heavy winter rainfall that would be needed to replenish the pool, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week formally declared drought conditions at John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir, the project’s official name.
The designation comes on the heels of several boat ramp closings on Buggs Island Lake and confirms what anyone living on the lake or who enjoys its recreational opportunities already knew: there’s just not much water flowing through.
“This has been the worst year that I have spent on Kerr Lake in my 19 years of being on the lake. At least tell us why and not the standard answer ‘we are in a drought’,” wrote David Hanson, an avid user of the lake, in a recent letter to the North Carolina-based Kerr Lake Park Watch.
According to the Corps, however, it is precisely drought conditions that have caused the lake to fall so low — although the worst of the problem is not in Southside Virginia, but rather upstream in Virginia’s mountain reaches where water usually flows abundantly.
Keeping the lake full depends on widespread rainfall across the entire Roanoke River basin, but this has not been the case this year, explains the Corps.
“Since the end of June, inflows into Kerr have only averaged about 35 percent of normal,” Young said. “Since dropping below our target summer pool elevation at the end of June, we have been conserving water by only generating the minimum energy amount that we are contractually obligated to provide to scores of communities and electric cooperatives across Virginia and North Carolina.”
Since October, rainfall and inflows have been even less. November has been especially dry, with only a half-inch of rain in the basin and at the dam — as a result, inflows were only about 20 percent of normal and were comparable to 2001 when inflows were the lowest on record for November.
As a further indication of worsening drought conditions, the National Drought Monitor downgraded much of North Carolina and Virginia, including all of the Roanoke Basin above Kerr, to “D1-Moderate Drought” based on continued much-below normal rainfall and stream flows.
“Continued lake level decline is likely as long as dry conditions continue in the Roanoke Basin; however, winter is the normal recharge period for reservoirs and wells, so we will hopefully see some improvement in lake levels during the upcoming months, Young said.
The winter forecast calls for equal chances of below-normal, near-normal, and above-normal precipitation. If conditions improve to at least 50 percent of normal inflows in the upcoming months, lake levels would begin to improve, says the Corps.
“Until conditions improve, we will continue to generate ‘minimum’ energy amounts,” Young said. “If conditions worsen, a reduction in generation below those minimum levels is a possibility.”
In response to the drought conditions, the district’s water management group is stepping up communication with stakeholders on the lake, including landowner, environmental and recreational groups. “We are taking advantage of our weekly water management stakeholder conference calls that the district began in 2002 in response to a serious drought,” Young said. “The information we share helps us to make the best possible decisions for all who use water resources in our river basins.”
In addition, the Corps is reiterating warnings that low water levels can create hazardous conditions for boaters and other recreational users of Buggs Island Lake.
“Caution should be exercised by people who use John H. Kerr for recreation,” says Michael Womack, operations manager at John H. Kerr Reservoir. “When water levels get low, additional hazards like submerged debris, stumps and rocks are hidden just below the surface. Boaters should slow down, be alert and wear their life jackets at all times.”
Kerr Reservoir currently has several boat ramps closed due to low water levels. For the latest information on lake elevations and ramp closures, call the John H. Kerr Powerhouse 24-hour recording line at 434-738-6633, ext. 275. The public may also direct questions to Corps park rangers at the Visitor Assistance Center, 434-738-6143, Monday – Friday.
For more information about water levels and water management, visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wilmington District web site at http://epec.saw.usace.army.mil/. For more information about drought conditions, visit the N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council web site at http://www.ncwater.org/drought/ or the Virginia Drought Management website at http://www.deq.virginia.gov/Programs/Water/WaterSupplyWaterQuantity/Drought.aspx.
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