The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

June 28, 2012

Blazing Summer: County water system struggles through drought

By Adam Smith
adam@athensnews-courier.com

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A drought monitor report to be issued today is expected to have Limestone, Madison, Morgan and Lauderdale counties in a severe drought status, and chances of rain continue to be slight.

The Palmer Drought Index, compiled by State Climatologist Dr. John Christy notes counties in the D-1 classification need more than 9 inches of rain to recover. However, temperatures are expected to climb to 100 degrees or more heading into the July Fourth holiday with only a 10 to 20 percent chance of showers predicted early next week.

The dry conditions and excessive heat have taken a toll on corn crops and residential yards and gardens across North Alabama. The weather has also taken a toll on water systems that are now struggling to provide one of life’s necessities.

This week, the Limestone County Water and Sewer Authority cut off wholesale systems in other counties that purchase water from the authority. It also asked its customers to voluntarily conserve water.

“Limestone County is experiencing abnormally dry conditions and the demand on our water system is at an all-time high level,” said a press release from the authority. “LCWSA anticipates that each customer will comply with our request to voluntarily conserve.”

Byron Cook, general manager of the LCWSA, owed the need for reduction to the heat and lack of rain. The authority’s main problem this week, however, is routing water to the northern end of the county. A treatment plant on Veto Road in Elkmont, he said, has a 3.2 million gallon per day capacity, and is currently running “wide open.”

“We’re pushing everything we can through there, but the (Tennessee) River is getting low,” he said. “Our usage has increased and people are watering everything to try to save what they can. It’s not critical yet, but it could be any day.”

The LCWSA, which sells water to other systems, purchases water from Athens Utilities and the city of Decatur. Cook said the authority is “buying everything we can buy” and selling what it can, but had to cut supplies to five wholesale water systems, including one in East Lauderdale County.

Ronnie Woodard, manager of East Limestone Water, said losing the ability to purchase water from the LCWSA has put his system in a bind. However, he understands the situation and said his system would have to take the same steps if the roles were reversed.

Like Limestone County, the East Lauderdale system has also asked its customers to voluntarily cut their water usage, and so far, Woodard said it’s working. However, he’s scared of the potential strain the upcoming July Fourth holiday will put on the system.

“Barring a catastrophe or a main break, we’re OK right now,” he said, adding the system has encountered some difficulties in providing water to customers in higher elevations. “We haven’t gotten to a point where we (have to ration water). If you know how to do a rain dance, do that or else beg and pray for rain for the future.”

Cook couldn’t say if or when the situation in Limestone would be dire enough to require water rationing, but said it would be “a blanket situation” affecting customers countywide. He said it’s likely many customers may cut back after seeing this month’s water bill.

“(Customers) will say, ‘It ain’t worth it, and I’ll just back off,’” he said. “If we can get through the Fourth of July, I think we’ll make it. If we do mandatory cutbacks, it won’t be pretty.”

One system with plenty of water to spare is the Athens Water Department, which also sells to the LCWSA. The Athens system moves an average of 7 million to 8 million gallons per day, but has the capacity to move 13 million to 14 million.

“We’re going to help (Limestone) address their issues the best way we can,” said Water Department Manager John Stockton.

He said the Athens system serves about 10,600 customers who use an average of 5 million gallons per day, though the city is required to keep additional water on hand for fire protection. However, he expects usage to increase significantly through the weekend and the July Fourth holiday.

“The weather prediction is for 100 degrees Thursday through Monday, so we’ve got people who rarely irrigate seeing their grass dying, and they’ll break out the sprinklers,” he said. “In past circumstances, we’ve seen a peak day of 10 million gallons. We can produce 13 million, so there’s not going to be a stress.”

The LCWSA has asked anyone who sees a leak to 256-233-6445, ext. 128.