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Downpours make little impact on drought

Kevin Castle • Jul 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM

A Good Samaritan helps pull a stalled vehicle out of high water on Sullivan Street recently. Ned Jilton II photo.


The Tri-Cities region received between 2 and 3 inches of rain the past seven days. In a typical year with average precipitation, that much rain could have caused flooding. Not this year.

Data released earlier this week from the National Weather Service in Morristown shows last week's rain helped in the "greening up of weeds and light grasses and water-resistant shrubbery," but it did not pull the region out of the drought's grip.

"Some places actually got some minor flooding of urban streets and low-lying spots," NWS meteorologist Brian Boyd wrote in an informational update issued Monday.

"The rains greened things up very nicely and reduced the fire potential. However, this can deceive people into thinking the drought is over. This rain wet the topsoil mainly and did not infiltrate into the deeper soil layers."

July is typically when the region receives the most rain, Boyd said, but even rain falling for another two weeks can't improve the prospects of already failing crops and dwindling levels in area lakes and rivers.

As of July 29, the Tri-Cities was 11.42 inches below normal in measured rainfall. Recorded levels of rain for this time of year usually reach 26 inches. The gauge at Tri-Cities Regional Airport has only reached 14.82 inches for the year.

While lakes west and south of the region are considerably lower due to the lack of rainfall, five area lakes are still at lower than normal water levels.

Douglas and Cherokee lakes are 7 inches below their yearly average levels, according to NWS gauges, while South Holston and Watauga are 5 inches and 6 inches lower than usual, respectively.

Boone Lake has the lowest level deficit of all the area lakes, with the waters 8 inches below normal stage, the NWS reports.

The drops have forced the Tennessee Valley Authority to cut hydropower generation in half due to the lack of rainfall in tributaries and reservoirs.

Boyd also noted that the Tennessee River system - which includes the Holston, Clinch and Powell rivers in the Tri-Cities - are at such a low level, the riverbeds currently have enough capacity to support more than double the amount of water.

"It would take a sudden rain of 3 inches over the entire Upper Tennessee River basin to bring the reservoirs up to flood level. This is not likely to happen," Boyd said.

Besides the obvious drops in water tables, poor soil conditions have led lawmakers in Tennessee and Virginia to file requests with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for disaster declarations due to the drought and its effects on crops and cattle.

The USDA has requests from Tennessee Agriculture Secretary Ken Givens and from Virginia's Sen. Jim Webb and U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher under advisement that could allow farmers to recoup some of their losses.

Boyd said a few tropical storms with prolonged moderate rain could turn the drought around.

"We would need a very wet summer, fall and winter to get us out of the long-term drought. This is not likely to happen at this point," said Boyd.

Daily precipitation levels are available through the NWS Web site: www.srh.noaa.gov.

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