Because of the copious amounts of rainfall we have had this winter, our lakes are full, the water is cascading down our beautiful waterfalls, and we can wash our cars with no penalties from the city.
Don't forget, though, that not too long ago, it was quite the opposite. For the past two years, we were in one of the most severe droughts this area has ever seen. The upstate of South Carolina has wavered between D3 and D4 (extreme to exceptional) drought conditions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor
, it wasn't until the week of December 8, 2009, that South Carolina was no longer experiencing a drought.
At one point, the Old Highway 93 bridge was exposed, which is normally about 20 feet below the surface of Lake Hartwell. The last time it was seen above water was before the Hartwell Dam
was built and the lake was created in 1962.
Sure, it is annoying when your dock hasn't been in the water for over a year because the lake levels are so low. Believe me, I speak from experience. But that should be the least of our worries when it comes to water in the upstate.
With the way that we have carved up the landscape and altered the natural flow of water, we have created some issues for ourselves.
Dr. Jeffrey Allen of Clemson's Strom Thurmond Institute and his team are part of an interdisciplinary study on the health and future of our water resources.
The upstate gets most of its water from surface water sources (lakes, rivers, reservoirs). Because there is a layer of bedrock that lies not too far beneath the surface of the ground, there is no easy access to aquifers. This means that we rely heavily on rainfall to replenish our water supply. There is no doubt that our area has felt the effects when the rain doesn't come when we need it.
Land development can alter the natural flow of water systems, and it can degrade the water quality as well. When an area is developed without using best management practices, it can eliminate natural filtration processes and buffers. The rate of erosion is also often accelerated.
Allen's team has been collecting and analyzing data on population growth and land development in order to model these for the future. The team has found that while the population is growing at a very high rate, the land development is increasing at five times the rate of population growth. To make matters worse for the watershed, much of the growth is centered around our lakes, rivers and reservoirs.
The growth in the area is inevitable. We are right in between two of the top growing metropolitan areas in the country: Atlanta and Charlotte. Allen hopes that the information his team has compiled will be used to revise county comprehensive plans in terms of where and how much development occurs.
We depend on water for more than quenching our thirst, though. It is a major player in the energy game as well. Hydroelectricity only accounts for about one to three percent of the total electricity that Duke Energy generates in the Carolinas, but it is a cleaner and cheaper form than coal.
A bigger issue, though, is the Oconee Nuclear Station
on Lake Keowee. In order to keep the reactors cooled properly, the lake level only has about six feet of leeway. It is impossible to shut down these reactors. As Allen explained, that plant supplies so much energy to the region that if it were to be shut down, it would create a vacuum and energy would flow back to the nuclear station, creating dangerous electrical situations.
We cannot count on the weather conditions to stay as they are right now, especially with the acceleration of global climate change. So, what steps do we need to take as a community to protect our water resources for when the next major drought event occurs?
Photo: Antonio Lambruschi