Drought lengthens, but Mount Airy Clear remains

Future Tense for Mar. 24, 2007

By Steve Welker

The N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council will have its monthly meeting this coming Thursday in Raleigh. Tomorrow, though, it will publish the newest drought monitor map.

My forecast: The map will show at least eight N.C. counties, mainly in the southwest tip of the state, suffering "exceptional drought" (also known as a D4 condition, the worst, which may require water rationing). Another three-fourths of the state's 100 counties will be classed as "extreme drought" (D3).

Throughout this hot, dry summer, Surry County has been one of the few counties in the "severe drought" (D2) category. This week it could fall into the D3 column despite the 3-inch rain last week. Severe drought means crop and pasture damage is likely, fire risk is high and water use restrictions may be required.

I see evidence of the drought every time I cross the Ararat River. Rocks and shoals I've never seen before have emerged from the sluggish stream. The U.S. Geological Service says the Ararat is flowing 30 percent below its median rate for this time of year. Elsewhere in the county, USGS says, the Mitchell and Fisher rivers' flow rates are less than half their norm.

Despite that, Mount Airy remains in better shape than much of North Carolina. Here our two water plants tap into two creeks flowing down from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia where the drought has not been as severe. Mount Airy built its water system to meet the heavy-duty needs of textile-manufacturing plants. With so many plants closed, the city now has a large surplus capacity. That's reassuring for a guy who grew up in the Midwest where droughts were common.


I don’t suppose any place is immune from a disaster of some sort, but the Illinois town where I was raised seemed pretty safe.

We had spectacular summer storms — one lightning bolt exploded a transformer outside my brother’s bedroom window — and occasional tornado alerts. Some heavy snowstorms shut down the town, but never for long. Floods were no threat. Only drought was common.

Our village pumped water from shallow wells. If rain didn’t fall for a few weeks, the water table dropped and the village asked people to cut back on use.

Rationing never caused much hardship at my house, however, because we had a cistern.

It was about 4 feet wide, lined with brick and topped with a concrete cap and cast-iron manhole cover. Downspouts from gutters along the roof channeled rainwater into the basin. I don't know how deep it was, but the cistern never ran dry, no matter how much water we dipped out and no matter how dry the weather.

My dad often used the cistern water for my mom’s roses. He dropped in a bucket on a rope, hauled it up and poured it on the posies. Dad swore that the soft, unfluoridated, unchlorinated rainwater made mom’s roses grow better than anyone else’s.

I think the fish in the cistern helped.

My middle brother, Jim, discovered guppies when he was 10 or 11 years old. Guppies are freshwater tropical fish, thinner than a pencil and usually 1 to 2 inches long. They normally have a nondescript color, but breeders can produce fancy guppies with beautiful, multi-colored fantails. Jim bought a couple of breeding pairs and I cut the tops off some one-gallon glass cider jugs he could use as aquariums. Soon, Jim began selling guppies to every kid in the neighborhood, but by the end of the summer he had no more customers -- all the kids had learned they could breed their own -- and Jim had more guppies than he could afford to feed. He could have flushed them down a toilet, but Jim was a kind-hearted soul, so he gave them a new home. We never told dad, but I believe guppy poop, not the cistern’s rainwater, helped mom’s roses grow.

We could have used that cistern water for drinking, too. Boy Scouts used to say that if fish could swim in a water source, people could drink it. Living fish usually mean the water doesn’t contain toxic chemicals. You do need to sterilize the water and kill any bacteria. You can boil the water, put in iodine or bleach (a eighth of a teaspoon per gallon unless the water turns cloudy, then use a quarter teaspoon) or use one of the personal filtration devices sold by companies like Katadyn and Sweetwater. They’re not usually essential, but carbon filters clear the odor and also help eliminate some chemicals.

My house in Mount Airy doesn’t have a cistern, but it’s close to Lovills Creek, which looks like a fine source of water.

David Puckett, city water treatment supervisor, confirms my opinion. He said Mount Airy is blessed with water that comes off the mountains with very low levels of chemicals or other unwanted elements. The city takes about 20 percent of its water from Lovills Creek and 80 percent from Stewarts Creek. In a pinch, the city also could tap the Ararat River. Five years ago, when most of North Carolina still suffered from a three-year-long-drought, Mount Airy never found it necessary to impose water restrictions.

The S.L. Spencer Plant near Mount Airy High School, built in 1926 and since then upgraded, and the F.G. Doggett Water Plant off Pine Street east of Gentry Middle School together produce about 4.5 million gallons a day (they’re rated for as much as 85 million gallons).

Both screen out debris with sieves and run the water into tanks where operators create “floc” from aluminum sulfate. Solids such as soil particles cling to the floc and sink to the tank bottom.

The water plants move the topmost, clearer water through carbon filters made from anthracite (a form of coal) and then through fine sand. At this point, the water’s turbidity (cloudiness) is 50 to 70 percent lower than the allowable federal standard. The water plants add a shot of chlorine for final disinfection and send their product into the distribution system.

They pump the flocculated water into a lagoon where the sludge settles out, is dried and eventually goes to a landfill.

I asked Puckett how Mount Airy’s city water compares with bottled water. He said it meets or exceeds all state and federal standards for quality.

As for taste, Puckett said he can’t tell the difference. He said the chlorine produces a slight aftertaste some people can detect. Let the city water stand in an open container for 20-30 minutes, however, and the chlorine will evaporate. Running the water through a carbon filter, such as those made by Brita or Pur, also eliminates any odor.

Of course, the bottled water costs up to $1 for 12 ounces.

The city will sell you 1,000 gallons of Mount Airy Clear -- enough to fill 10,666 12-ounce bottles-- for about $8.

Many places aren’t as fortunate as Mount Airy. Engineers and scientists continue improving water-purification technology with new methods for killing bacteria and viruses (ozone treatment and ultraviolet light), for eliminating toxic metals like the lead and arsenic turning up in New Orleans (an activated alumina treatment developed by Canadian scientists is one solution) and for removing the salt from seawater.

No one can predict how long the current drought will last, for it's a relief to know that I can open a tap in Mount Airy and enjoy plenty of cheap, pure water both now ... and in the future.

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