NEWS- No rain: Dry September raises drought fears

Tom Frederick, executive director of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, says conservation efforts have stemmed demand enough that the impact of a dry September has been minimal.

Heading into fall after a drier-than-average summer, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority placed Charlottesville and Albemarle under a drought warning August 15. Concurrently, the city and county began a joint radio campaign of public service announcements warning, "Water is not a renewable resource."

According to data from UVA's McCormick Observatory, September's 0.69 inches of rain made it the fourth-driest September in Charlottesville history, well short of the 4.2-inch average for the month, and dangerously close to matching 1985's all-time low of 0.62. 

The total is quite a change from last year's 7.28 inches that made September 2006 one of the wettest ever. 

Jerry Stenger, research scientist in the UVA Climatology Office, says the phenomenon is due in part to the lack of big storms working their way up the East Coast from the Caribbean Sea.

"Usually, this time of year, some tropical system or its remnants will make its way up here, and even though we've had two Category-5 hurricanes make landfall in the Atlantic– the first time that's happened– they haven't gotten up here," he says. "One or two of those bad boys could change things in a hurry."

Additionally, Stenger blames lack of thunderstorms.

"We really rely on thunderstorms in the absence of tropical systems," he explains. "There just hasn't been a lot of widespread activity."

Given the rainfall shortfall, is an official drought in our immediate future? 

No, says Tom Frederick, executive director of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, who claims that efforts to promote conservation have apparently worked.

"The demand for water is down, and that's helping us to manage our water supply," he says. "We suspect very strongly that's due to conservation efforts, and we're exceeding the targets we set for a drought warning."

"Right now we're at about 9 million gallons a day, down from 10.5 million," says Albemarle Service Authority executive director Gary Fern. "If we continue to conserve at this pace, we feel pretty comfortable with where we are."

Frederick contends there are no immediate plans to declare a drought– and the increased restrictions on water use that such a declaration entails– especially considering that the changing seasons are working in favor of maintaining high water levels in underground water tables.

"Now that fall is coming, the deciduous trees are losing their leaves, and they don't consume as much water as they would in the summer months," explains Frederick, although he notes that should dry conditions continue into the autumn and winter, the city and county water supply will be in real trouble.

"We'll have huge concerns in this office if we don't get rain this winter," Frederick says. "We've had moderately dry summers in the past, but they've tended to follow winters when we got a decent amount of rain and the groundwater tables were high enough so the droughts were more moderate. If we have low groundwater tables going into next summer, it's dangerous."

The last time that happened was after the nearly snow-free winter of 2002 that created widespread drought conditions the following summer, despite the fact that the season's total precipitation was 11.21 inches, only 2.33 inches below the average.

Is recent climatological history about to repeat itself? 

"These things come and go, and there are no discernible long-term trends," says Stenger. "There are no long-range forecasts that we can rely on for any guidance."

Stenger and Frederick agree that in spite of the oft-repeated public service announcements, water remains a renewable resource.

"It's a resource we should use wisely, but, yes, it is renewable," says Frederick.

"Being parsimonious of most resources is usually a good idea," says Stenger. "But for all intents and purposes, water is renewable in the long term."

Fern says he's gotten calls about the "renewable resource" line, and while he concedes that water does evaporate into the air and eventually fall again as precipitation, he stands by the advertisement.

"Sure, the hydrologic cycle is there," Fern says, "but within our service area, our reservoirs are limited in size, and once we use it up, it's gone." 

Fern adds that a new series of PSAs will soon hit the airwaves, focusing on specific, everyday things people can do to curtail their water use, but he says he doesn't think they repeat the claim about water's renewability.