River drought?

River levels

Edisto at Givhans Ferry

June 1 - 3.79 inches

July 14 - 1.68 (low point of two months to date)

July 21 - 1.90.

Flood: 10 feet.

Salkehatchie* at Miley.

June 1 - 2.40 inches

July 11 - 1.40 (low point).

July 21 - 2.44.

Flood: Not available.

*No gauges on Little Salkehatchie River: The Miley station on the Salkehatchie is about 2 miles from the Little Salkehatchie.

Sources: S.C. Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Geological Survey.

Despite the rain this year, the rivers have been down - a few spots nearly to still water. Fish are dying. It's like a throwback to the drought years of the last decade.

The Edisto River, for example, is only reading about three feet deep at Givhans Ferry, some seven feet below what would be considered flood level.

Residents along the Little Salkehatchie River banks farther south suspect too much water is being drawn by farmers from the rivers and the groundwater that feeds them. Their concerns were raised in 2013 when conservationists opposed permitting a large withdrawal from the upper Edisto River for a potato farm.

Since the drought, South Carolina has been grappling with emerging regional issues of competition for water resources, both instate and with Georgia and North Carolina. Water withdrawal management is no longer an issue confined to arid Western states, thanks to the Southeast's booming population.

The potato farm conflict spurred a small-scale "water war" before both sides settled on a compromise. It drove concerns about state oversight of withdrawals that still fester among people who have property or interests along the banks of rivers like the Edisto and Little Salkehatchie that feed eventually into the ACE Basin, a cornerstone to the Lowcountry's envied greenbelt of more than 750,000 acres of conserved natural areas.

"We're not in a drought. We've gotten plenty of rain," said J.J. Jowers, a Bamberg resident whose family has property on both rivers. "Where is it going?"

State hydrologists are trying to figure that one out. But there might be no one answer. Irrigation is a factor, said Scott Harder, S.C. Department of Natural Resources hydrologist. But so are industrial use, public water supplies, evaporation and transpiration, and the use of water by plants and trees.

"A lot of it is rainfall," Harder said. "Could it be withdrawals upstream? Somewhat, but it's an unknown in my mind."

Impending drought is high on the list. State Climatologist Hope Mizzell has been watching the rainfall, gauging whether to call a meeting of the state drought committee to consider issuing cautions or conservation measures.

The state is not near the worst of the five-year drought at the turn of the century, when levels on the Edisto dropped to little more than one foot. Groundwater is still as recharged as could be expected this time of year, Harder said.

And there has been rain, Mizzell said, but weather stations around the state last week were reporting less than average amounts since June 1. For example, only about 85 percent of the long-time average had fallen at Charleston International Airport.

But weekend rainfall brought the Charleston station back above average, forecasters said Monday. And that's a dilemma. Summer rainfall generally, and this year particularly, tends to be hit-or-miss depending and where the thunderheads form, Mizzell said.

And in fact, flow in the Edisto and Little Salkehatchie improved somewhat after the recent summer thunderstorms. Lakes Marion and Moultrie remain at full pool, said Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper spokeswoman, because of rains in the wide basin upstream of rivers that feed the lakes.

Jowers isn't convinced.

"In Bamberg County there's plenty of water" in the Little Salkehatchie River, he said. But near Lodge downstream, fish were dying last week stranded in pools. "I don't know any other river that gets smaller as it gets closer to the ocean," he said.

"As sure as many of us are that river level declines are at least partially attributed to groundwater and surface water withdrawals, we don't have enough information to prove it. Data on how much, when, and where for water use is seriously lacking. It amazes me that the DNR Fisheries Department can do a drive-by and conclude that navigable river beds running dry are not attributed to anything but a lack of rainfall," he said.

But the two large water users along the Salkehatchie, both dairy farms, are upstream of Bamberg, according to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control records. Harder, of DNR, said you can't figure the coastal plain rivers just by eyeballing them at various spots. Some literally lose water to the ground and do drop from spot to spot.

"I wish it were black and white, but it's really not," he said. As far as the river level situation overall, "it's something that needs to be paid attention to. It needs to be looked at."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.