Wet winter gives hope for break from drought

jholleman@thestate.comFebruary 28, 2013 

  • Winter rains Totals for December-January-February in South Carolina

    Charleston 14.38

    Columbia 10.23

    Florence 10.61

    Greenville-Spartanburg 14.96

    North Myrtle Beach 8.79

    Orangeburg 12.54

A wet end to a roller-coaster winter of precipitation has recharged the state’s drought-shrunken waterways.

The state still could sink into serious drought conditions later in the year, but at least most areas are in better shape heading into the spring and summer.

The southern coast and lower Savannah River regions exit February downright saturated. Both Charleston (10.47 inches) and Savannah (9.75 inches) set all-time records for the wettest month of February, and Augusta (10.03 inches) had its third wettest February, according to the National Weather Service.

Those records follow the driest Januarys ever in Charleston (.35) and Augusta (.60).

The Midlands and Upstate weren’t quite as wet in February (5.51 in Columbia, 3.88 in Greenville-Spartanburg), but that’s OK because those areas had healthy rain totals in December and January (4.72 in Columbia, 11.08 in Greenville-Spartanburg).

The early winter rain hit in areas suffering the worst drought conditions. The state drought committee already noted the changes, improving drought designations in 26 counties on Jan. 31. Many of the 22 counties classified as in moderate drought have improved since then.

State climatologist Hope Mizzell has been happy to see the improved flow in the state’s rivers and streams.

“I look at how quickly does it drop back down after a heavy rain, and I’ve been encouraged by how many of the streams are not immediately heading right back down,” Mizzell said.

One deep well in Oconee County monitored by the Department of Natural Resources has returned to near normal levels after years of below-normal readings.

Lake Hartwell in the Upstate had dipped to 645 feet, leaving many docks high and dry in early December. This week, it’s above 653 feet. Not only is that eight feet higher than three months ago, it’s a foot higher than last year heading into the spring.

Overall, the Savannah River lakes (Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond) remain in Stage 2 drought, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lakes. But that’s an improvement after they dropped to Stage 3 last year.

That designation is an indication the recovery remains tenuous.

“Do we need a normal rainfall pattern in March? Yes,” Mizzell said. “Do we need record rainfall? No.”

The long-range forecast from the federal Climate Prediction Center calls for slightly below average rainfall and above average temperatures for the next three months in South Carolina.

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