The smattering of rain over the weekend and the nearly normal lake levels are deceiving: South Carolina appears headed for a spring and summer of serious drought.
The major lakes are relatively full only because a few heavy rains have hit the Upstate in the past three months, said state climatologist Hope Mizzell. The rest of the state has been bone dry — the driest Dec. 1-Feb. 12 on record in Charleston (1.3 inches of rain) and the second-driest ever for Columbia (2.88 inches).
While the major lakes fed by the Upstate rains are OK, they’re still lower than water managers would like to see going into what is forecast to be a dry spring. And smaller farm ponds in the Midlands and Lowcountry, fed only by local rains, are looking more like puddles.
“I’m certainly receiving calls about ponds,” Mizzell said. “They’re saying they’ve never seen them this dry this time of year.”
To this point, the crop hit hardest by the drought has been winter wheat, but the possibility of more devastating drought to come has farmers talking.
“It seems like it’s our normal course of conversation in recent years,” said Agricultural Commissioner Hugh Weathers.
The state has been in drought much of the past decade. Columbia, for instance, had less than 40 inches of rain seven times in all of the 20th century. That’s already happened three times in the 21st century, and we have a good start on a fourth.
The long-range forecasts are for less precipitation than normal in the state for the next three months. Past that period, the rainfall forecast is harder to make because of the iffy status of a weakening La Nina, a period of cooler than normal sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific that impacts global weather. During La Nina periods, winters typically are warm and dry in South Carolina.
It’s unlikely weather patterns will reverse in time to bring South Carolina out of drought status anytime soon.
Currently, six counties — Pickens, Oconee, Anderson, Abbeville, McCormick and Edgefield — are classified as in severe drought, the third of four stages in the state drought status. The rest of the state is at the moderate drought level, but that could change at the next meeting of the state Drought Response Committee, which Mizzell said probably will be in early March.
The lack of winter rainfall doesn’t immediately impact most farmers and water providers, but the impact will increase with the temperature in late spring and summer, when evaporation sucks up what water remains in the upper level of soil and in ponds.
Wildfire danger already is on the rise, with S.C. Forestry Commission workers battling several swamp fires in the upper coastal plain in the past few weeks. Those boggy areas usually have water in them in the winter. When they are dry enough to burn, the fire works down below the surface into the bogs and is extremely difficult to control, said Mike Bozzo, a forester with the commission.
And the traditionally most active months for wildfires aren’t until March and April.