Recent Rains Help, But Water Levels Remain Far Below Average

Thanks to late-December rainfall, Asheville narrowly avoid its driest year on record, lakes in Charlotte swelled slightly and water supplies in Raleigh increased by more than two weeks.

None was enough to significantly diminish effects of the drought but could prevent stricter water limits in some areas. Heavy snowfall was forecast Tuesday in parts of western North Carolina, one of the hardest hit regions, though rainfall totals remain far below average.

The latest drought report, issued by the U.S. Drought Monitor last week, said 78 of the state's 100 counties are in exceptional drought conditions, the most intense category. The remainder of the state — small sections along the Virginia border and much of the coast — are classified in extreme or severe drought.

Here is Eastern Carolina, most areas remain between some 15 inches below the average for rainfall.

In downtown Asheville, the 3.03 inches of precipitation in December was slightly above the month's average and pushed the year's total rainfall to 23.55 inches, ranking 2007 as the third driest year on record, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

The total is more than 13 inches below average.

Falls Lake, just north of Raleigh, rose more than a foot after heavy rains Sunday, which added two weeks to the city's dwindling water supply. The lake was nearly 10 feet below normal on Christmas Day, an all-time low, but the water level is now about 8 feet below normal.

"That's still outrageously low," said Ed Buchan, Raleigh's water conservation specialist. "But to get a foot back in a day is awesome. That's a heck of a lot of water."

City officials decided to postpone stricter water restrictions, though automatic irrigation remains off-limits throughout the Triangle.

In Charlotte, the 1.21 inches of rain that fell Sunday increased lake levels but hardly affected larger bodies of water. The region is still nearly 15 inches below average annual rainfall, said Taryn Sims, a Duke Energy spokeswoman.

"It's helped some, and that's great. But it's going to take a long time to get back to where we need to be," she said.

Some businesses in the area are taking steps to conserve water. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated saves about 30,000 gallons of water a day by cleaning bottles with ionized air instead of water. Another 100,000 gallons is saved daily by cleaning filters with ultraviolet light, said spokesman Lauren Steele.

"The good news is we have taken a lot of initiatives to already reduce usage," Steele said. "The bad news is I don't know how much more could be done."