By Jesse Wood
Larry Ingle lives on the Watauga River Gorge about a half-mile from the Tennessee line. With his river-frontage property, Ingle can walk down to two waterfalls and more that are essentially inaccessible to everyone except kayakers. Like everyone else or perhaps more so, he’s noticed the streams and rivers running low.
With the warranted press on the general election and the drought-related fires southwest of the High Country, Ingle is concerned that the potential effects of the drought on drinking water are being overlooked.
“My neighbors think I am crazy. I am being very careful, trying not to waste a drop,” Ingle said earlier this week. “The whole subject has been kind of ignored, and I think it’s at a stage now that it deserves some attention.”
Currently, Watauga County is experiencing a “severe drought.” Throughout the early summer to now, Watauga County has slowly crept up from the “abnormally dry” and “moderate drought” ranges. Fortunately, for us, though, conditions aren’t nearly as bad as the “exceptional drought” and “extreme drought” levels in the southwestern part of the state, where nearly 50,000 acres of forest are burning.
Unfortunately, though, the dry conditions look like they might remain for at least two more months. This morning, the State Climate Office released the third part of its 2016-17 Winter Outlook, stating that its forecasting model predicts a “moderate to high confidence that predominantly dry weather will continue through December and likely much of January.”
“Drought will remain a concern this winter, as even near-normal seasonal precipitation would not lift western North Carolina completely out of the current drought,” the report reads. “Groundwater wells in that region will take time to recover.”
Rebecca Cumbie-Ward, an extension climatologist with the State Climate Office, said that water levels began dropping in June, a theme that has continued to the present day.
“In the past couple weeks, they’ve started to drop into these very low levels,” Cumbie-Ward said. “For example, a USGS well in Cherokee County … its current level is at a depth of 14.7 feet and that’s actually 0.4 feet below the lowest levels ever recorded for the month of November.”
Curtis Weaver, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s South Atlantic Water Science Center’s office in North Carolina, said that homeowners with wells certainly have cause for concern with the current conditions.
Weaver noted that there aren’t local wells, such as the one in Cherokee County, to pull data from, but he referenced the USGS water gauge on the Watauga River, located near the intersection of Rominger and Old Watauga River roads.
At that location, the Watauga River is running 27 cubic feet per second.
“To put that in historical context, the [Watauga River] is running at 20 percent of what we expect,” Weaver said. “When you have streams running this low, because of the interconnect between groundwater and stream flow, I would say there is definitely cause for concern for those who own wells.”
Dewey Wright Jr., owner of Dewey Wright Well and Pump Co., said his office has been getting more calls lately. Wells have been drying up, he said, more than normal since January and springs have been drying up the last two or three months.
“We’ve really been noticing [more calls] for the last year, but it’s been more noticeable the last two or three months,” Wright Jr. said.
He noted that wells at about 3,500 to 4,000 feet in elevation and those that have been drilled shallow at, say, 80 to 100 feet deep, depict the types of service calls his company has received lately.
“If you don’t get it by going deeper, you do try to find another spot,” Wright Jr. said when asked how those service calls turn out.
(As a diagram provided by Doug Smith, another hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s South Atlantic Water Science Center’s office in North Carolina, shows, depending on how many fractures in crystalline bedrock a well is drilled through, nearby wells [within feet from each other] in the mountains can yield variable amounts of water.)
When asked about this issue happening in prior times in the High Country, Wright responded “absolutely” before rattling off different dates in time – 1978, 1986-88 and 1999-2001 – when droughts have happened.
“We’ve encountered three drought years in a row in the well-drilling business,” Wright said. “It does come back around, and sometimes they last three years.”
As for how much rain would be needed to end the drought, Dennis Sleighter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Blacksburg, Va., office, which covers some of the High Country, said that 10.05 inches of rain would end the drought right now, and according to archives with RaysWeather.com, several months have passed since the High Country has received that amount of rain.
Anywho, Larry it sounds like you aren’t that crazy after all.
Just before publishing this story on Thursday evening, Andrew Blethen, the environmental health supervisor with the Appalachian District Health Department, said that his office has issued 11 permits for new private drinking water wells since September. He noted that three of these permits were from the Ski Crest Subdivision near Blowing Rock and the others were from various areas, mostly on the eastern side of the county.
“In Watauga County for all of 2015 we issued a total of 9 new well construction permits due to someone being out of water. This is a good reason why people need to conserve our most precious natural resource. In addition to conservation the protection of our supplies (both surface and ground water) from contamination is critical and is a major reason behind our onsite water protection program that regulates the construction of septic systems and private drinking water wells across the state,” Blethen added on Friday
Blethen noted that permits regarding dry wells are a priority at the office, so residents don’t go without water longer than necessary as far as permitting goes.
For homeowners, here’s “Groundwater and the Rural Homeowner” report from the USGS that may be of interest. Click to the following link: http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/gw_ruralhomeowner/
Here are a couple diagrams provided by Doug Smith of the U.S. Geological Survey’s South Atlantic Water Science Center’s office in North Carolina to help me with this story: