MONCKS CORNER -- Just like that, the drought is sucking dry the Marion-Moultrie lakes -- again.
The water has dropped more than a foot in about two weeks, exposing the shallow bottoms, starting to strand boat landings and threatening to dry up the popular lakeside fish camps.
The river flow into the lakes, which held its own for the summer, suddenly dropped off from the combination of little rainfall and high temperatures.
The Charleston area is nearly 10 inches short of normal rainfall for the year, a shortage being felt across the region. The lakes are nearly 4 feet down from normal level.
Santee Cooper, the Moncks- Corner-based utility managing the lakes, closed two Lake Moultrie boat landings Wednesday -- General Moultrie in Bonneau Beach and Thornley Forest in Moncks Corner. A third, West Dike, was posted with a low-water advisory.
"It's steady going down," said Tom Galloway of Bonneau Beach. He no longer can launch his pontoon boat from his house, and doesn't know how much longer he will be able to from the public landing down the road, he said. Within a day that landing closed.
"It was a hot summer and it finally took its toll," said Mollie Gore, public relations director for Santee
Cooper. Utility workers are watching the water levels at all landings. "We are encouraging boaters to look before they launch. Conditions are changing daily."
The bare bottoms are a ghostly reminder of the 2007 drought that stranded docks around the lakes, on the heels of a five-year drought that ended only a few years before that. The bottoms are maybe the most obvious sign that a persistent drought has returned.
The drop-off isn't nearly as bad as it was during the worst of either of those two droughts, when the lakes dropped so far that much of the bottom could be walked across.
But except for the old river channels and deeper bottoms, the lakes are largely shallow, an average of little more than 15 feet deep. It doesn't take a lot of water loss to leave boat landing runways out of the water and expose stumps and other hazards.
"It's not as bad as it was a few years ago when it was down 10 feet, but it's bad," said Mike Doster of Harry's Fish Camp, outside Cross on Lake Marion near the Diversion Canal to Lake Moultrie. Only one of the two boat ramps at the camp is being used.
At Angel's Landing and Marina in Lake Moultrie on the side of the canal, the ramps are operating, but pontoon boats are scraping the flats out beyond the landing channel.
"Our water's getting kind of thin. We lost four inches of water (Tuesday) across 170,000 acres (of lakes' surface). Where did all that water go?" said owner Al Jones.
A computer-driven management of discharge from the lakes' dams is supposed to keep the lakes from those sudden drops, he said. But Gore said the discharge levels are mandated until emergency measures are introduced.
It's not just the Santee Cooper lakes. Rivers across the state have fallen to very low flows, and all the lakes are down, said State Climatologist Hope Mizzell.
"We've had very little rainfall. The drought has certainly been intensifying," she said, and recent high temperatures worsened evaporation. The entire state already has been declared in moderate drought, or threatened by drought. The next stage declaration would start some water-use restrictions.
The state committee that decides those declaration plans to meet Sept. 29.
A five-year drought from 1998 to 2002 dropped lake levels so low that the Edisto River in places was little more than rivulets, and shallower areas of Lake Moultrie could be walked upon.
Much of the piped water supply for the Charleston area comes from the Marion-Moultrie lakes or downstream along the Cooper River.
But the lake intake is in very deep water. Even in the worst of the five-year drought, the supply was never in jeopardy.
The good news is that temperatures have dropped, and over the next few days at least an inch of rain is forecast over most of the state, Mizzell said. "That's much-needed temporary relief."
But October and November historically are the state's driest months of the year, and La Nina is establishing cold Pacific Ocean waters that nudge the jet stream, bringing weather patterns that tend to make the Southeast drier.