The drought might be the twist that stirs the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in South Carolina's "water wars" lawsuit.
The state sued North Carolina last spring over a permit that would allow the Tar Heel State to pump as much as 36 million gallons per day from the Catawba River, which supplies water to cities in both states, as well as the Lowcountry. The water would be used by the North Carolina cities of Concord and Kannapolis and would be discharged into the Pee Dee, a different river basin.
North Carolina last week asked the court, which hears disputes between states, to throw out the lawsuit, saying that except in the case of extreme drought, the transfer wouldn't disrupt flow, and any loss of water to South Carolina could be corrected by allowing more flow from a half-dozen dams in North Carolina along the Catawba — flow regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Right now, both states teeter at the dusty brink of extreme drought. Lake Moultrie, the last lake in the Catawba chain, is down nearly 7 feet, and miles of the bottom are exposed. The only boat landing that's still fully usable is in the Tailrace
Canal below the Pinopolis Dam.
Lake Moultrie is a vital source for much of the Lowcountry's drinking water, as well as for recreation and wildlife. Water supplies are not threatened so far, and the Supreme Court is not expected to consider the case until at least January.
Attorney general's offices for both states mostly declined to comment on the North Carolina response.
"We don't comment on pending cases," said Jennifer Canada, assistant public information officer of the North Carolina office.
"We will begin reviewing the contents of the document immediately," said Mark Plowden, communications director for the South Carolina office.
These kinds of "water wars," disputes over who owns what stream, have flamed up across parched Western states for years. The demands of a booming population mean the rainier Southeast now faces them as well, water professionals say.
Georgia is embroiled in a battle with Alabama and Florida regarding water released from Lake Lanier, Atlanta's drinking source, and other lakes in the state. The current drought, which threatens to deplete Lake Lanier, has exacerbated those tensions. Officials from those states will meet at the White House this week in an effort to mediate a settlement.
South Carolina officials have been working to avoid that since the 1998-2002 drought dramatically dropped river levels across the state. The Pee Dee ran so dry that salt water at one point backed up 15 miles inland and shut down a Georgetown County drinking water intake.
In response, Gov. Mark Sanford formed a committee that approached North Carolina and Georgia, looking for agreements on how to manage the flow in the river basins the states share. While Georgia is cooperating, North Carolina is not, and the current drought is beginning to mirror the worst conditions of those five years.
The historical record of droughts in the Carolinas suggests that except for severe cases, the states' water usage can be accommodated by its rivers, but increasing populations in both states is expected to double demand over the next 40 years.