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May 09, 2008

Drought is not over yet

dry pond
A pond at a Cary park shows the effects of drought. (Art Latham photo)

Given the recent spring rainfall, some might think the worst of this past year’s drought is history. That’s understandable, since ponds on farms or in local parks are looking full again, and some days there’s even standing water in the roadside ditches.

Droughts, however, like everything in nature, are cyclical.

Meanwhile, the demand on North Carolina’s natural resources, including our finite water supplies, is increasing as rapidly as the commercial and residential development that triggers that demand.

As of early May 2008, about half of our state remains in a drought status that ranges from moderate to severe, and several counties in the state’s south-central area remain in severe drought, according to the N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council. But even if the drought eases, albeit temporarily, researchers and educators at N.C. State University and in North Carolina Cooperative Extension will continue to do all they can to ensure that we have enough clean water to drink, despite the pressures of steadily increasing population and ever-decreasing supplies.

These scientists have developed not only water-saving but water-cleansing technologies to keep poisons from entering our ever-scarcer drinking water.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researchers in the departments of Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE), Soil Science and Crop Science have developed best management practices (BMPs), various engineered ways both to save rainwater and keep it pure enough to drink. And Cooperative Extension agents in all 100 counties and on the Cherokee Reservation pass that information along to the public.

For instance, rain gardens and other BMPs such as constructed wetlands, swales, permeable pavement, retention ponds, dry detention and infiltration basins manage rainfall when there’s too much of it. They control silt, the top polluter, and cleanse water of poisons: chemicals such as agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, pesticides, petroleum products, litter, pet and yard waste, fecal coliform and metals.

“In wet seasons or dry, water-quality BMPs also help treat huge amounts of drinkable water,” says Bill Lord, Cooperative Extension area specialized agent for environmental education.

“Most of our BMPs recharge groundwater,” Lord says. “For instance, every bit of a one-inch rainfall that pours into a water retention bed like a rain garden goes back into the water table, cleansed of nitrogen and phosphorus.”

Lord is a regular on UNC-TV’s weekend “Almanac Gardener” series, which will focus this season on helping home gardeners weather drought, says host Mike Gray. Segments from April to August will include weekly water-saving topics such as recycled water use, drip irrigation, drought-tolerant landscape plants, water-saving mulches, instal-ling cisterns, constructing rain barrels and rain gardens and more.

While neither researchers nor Cooperative Extension agents have yet discovered how to produce rain, Extension agents and local partners have worked for more than a year to install rain-catching “water-harvesting systems” such as those to be shown on “Almanac Gardener.” The systems — cisterns or rain barrels — replace water uses ranging from lawn, commercial turf and horticultural crops irrigation to toilet flushing and vehicle washing.

“Cisterns capture rooftop rainfall runoff and use it in place of potable water supplies,” says Dr. Bill Hunt, BAE assistant professor and Extension urban storm-water management specialist and a registered professional engineer. “That saves water and money and is less demanding on the aquifers.” Moreover, cisterns are a natural choice for storm-water managers, Hunt says.

“For some, it’s hard to see how other BMPs pay for themselves,” he explains. “With a wetland, for instance, you often can’t see immediate or ultimate benefits to the aquifer. But with a cistern, it’s easy to see the payback in money saved by using this device.”

Getting a head start on the demand, several years ago a BAE student design team created a mathematical model since used statewide to size cisterns. Based on that work, Matthew Jones, currently a BAE graduate student, developed a user-friendly Web site that helps consumers decide if they need a cistern, and how to build one. (See sidebar.)

“We have refined the model that takes into consideration differing rainfall amounts in different parts of the state,” says Hunt. “CALS alumni from several firms have contacted me to say they used this model to design their water harvesting systems.”

From North Carolina’s mountains to the sea, many College, BAE and Extension centers’ water conservation education projects include cisterns.

“The severe drought, coupled with declining aquifer water levels, has made water conservation a priority for North Carolina,” says Charles Humphrey, Extension area specialized agent for environmental education based in Craven County.

Last fall, Humphrey, New Bern officials and the East Carolina Council of Governments partnered to install water harvesting systems at a municipal building and elsewhere.

At the city fleet management center, a pipe and gutters divert more than 1,500 gallons to the 3,000-gallon cistern for each inch of rain that falls on the building’s roof. Water then is pumped to a tanker truck used to irrigate city park grounds.

“As a result, the city is reducing potable water consumption,” says Humphrey, whose Extension program areas include education, septic systems, storm-water and agricultural BMPs, wetlands, general water quality and water conservation.

Humphrey also installed water capture systems at the Cooperative Extension Center (the County Agriculture Center) and has sold discounted rain barrels.

Along the coast, thanks to a grant Hunt procured, a cistern is in place at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harker’s Island.

In the Bottoms neighborhood in Wilmington, Jason Wright, BAE and Extension associate in coastal storm-water management, along with Christy Perrin and Patrick Beggs of Extension’s Watershed Education for Communities and Officials (WECO), helped install several mid-sized cisterns and distributed 24 rain barrels to inner-city residents. Also, a BAE senior class team is designing a large cistern for nearby Wrightsville Beach.

In Eastern North Carolina, Dwane Jones, Cooperative Extension area specialized agent for environmental education, helped install cisterns for Goldsboro, at the Cooperative Extension Center at Snow Hill, and in Lenoir County to wash vehicles at the Kinston motor fleet operations center.

In the Piedmont, at Guilford County’s Cooperative Extension Center, an EPA grant funded a Carolina Yards and Neighborhoods water conservation and water quality program.

Karen Neill, Extension’s Guilford County urban horticulture agent and an “Almanac Gardener” regular, reports that a state Department of Environment and Natural Resources grant helped install 550- and 1,100-gallon cisterns to irrigate demonstration gardens and to construct a new wetland and rain garden designed by BAE’s Wright at the county center. Neill also worked with Page High School classes to convert an old holding pond to a wetlands, which cleans water more efficiently.

In Western North Carolina , in Buncombe County, Jon Calabria, French Broad Training Center coordinator, BAE Extension associate in water quality and a landscape architect, obtained grant funds to add a cistern and landscape-watering pump under the bonsai pavilion at the North Carolina Arboretum. The arboretum also installed two cisterns to provide the necessary pure rainwater for its crafts pavilion and is increasing its rain barrel use.

Wendy Patoprsty, Extension agent for natural resources and environmental education in Watauga County, and Hunt are involved with an upcoming Town of Boone municipal building cistern installation.

While the demand for cisterns is growing, rain barrel demand is increasing even faster, probably for a good reason.

Dr. Garry Grabow, BAE assistant professor, Extension specialist and a licensed professional engineer, is working on a project to evaluate technologies to manage turf irrigation and prevent over-watering. His co-researchers include Dr. Rod Huffman, associate BAE professor, and two Crop Science Department turfgrass experts, Dr. Dan Bowman, associate professor, and Dr. Grady Miller, professor.

“It takes a lot of water to irrigate,” says Grabow. “To apply an inch of water to 1,000 square feet of turf requires 623 gallons. So ‘fully functional’ cistern systems are expensive, which is why most have been installed at government or other institutional places that have money.”

In February, the College’s American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers student branch converted 10 250-gallon containers into rain barrels. After the story appeared on WRAL and Fox TV, the barrels sold out in 10 minutes.

In Carteret County, Anne Edwards, Extension agent for agriculture and horticulture says, “We sent 42 of the 60-to-70-gallon rain barrels home with people after our rain barrel workshop last summer.

“They’ve been very successful,” she says. “People who have them are just so pleased. I know for me, every time I turn the spigot it just makes me smile. It gives a ridiculous amount of joy just to be using rain water.” Extension’s Karen Neill says, “In Guilford County, since the 2002 drought, when we sold 1,500, Extension has sold rain barrels. We now average about 300 a year.”

Wendi Hartup, Extension area specialized agent for environmental education for Forsyth and Stokes counties, ran a rain barrel-making workshop in April. Other Extension agents across the state are following suit.

To initiate drought-related lifelines in other ways, Extension agents developed educational Web pages and other initiatives.

In Eastern North Carolina, Dr. Diana Rashash, Onslow County-based area specialized agent for environmental education, posts a newsletter and other drought information regularly.

From the west, Lenny Rogers, Extension’s Alexander County director, reports that “at the request of our county commissioners, we are doing a major educational thrust on water conservation. Our 4-H agent highlights these tips with many after-school groups, we are doing newspaper and radio articles and are offering this topic as a program through our local speakers’ bureau. Plus, we developed a water conservation fact sheet and use a Power Point ‘Jeopardy’ game.”

And Eric Caldwell, Extension’s Transylvania County director, and his team put together a Web page with links to many other drought-related sites.

Several times in 2007, Extension agents took the message to the people through other media.

Mitch Woodward, Extension area specialized agent for agriculture and Neuse River coordinator in Wake County, offered practical tips for homeowners in coping with the drought. He appeared on Fox 50, WRAL-TV and Capitol Broadcasting’s “News and Views with Chris Fitzsimon” on WRAL-FM (101.5) and WCMC-FM (99.9), as well as on WRAL’s Web site and many North Carolina News Network-affiliated stations.

This placed him squarely on the “News and Views” “top newsmakers for 2007” list and helped the public understand the implications of the drought to our water supplies.
In Lincoln County, Kevin Starr, Extension county director, submitted articles to the local media. In Caldwell County, Allen Caldwell, county Extension director and two City of Lenoir officials appeared on a cable TV show and agricultural agent Seth Nagy appeared on a second show to explain how to reduce water use. Caldwell also submitted three news articles to local print media. Those efforts resulted in an approximate 15 percent water use reduction, a city official said.

In these driest of times, educating the public about water conservation and creating means for them to save water continue as among Extension and the College’s highest priorities.

Because even if it’s raining outside as you read this, remember this: Researchers say tree core samples dating as far back at 1548 A.D. show the piedmont has averaged one to two extended droughts — four years or longer — per century in the past.

And with droughts, as with all else in nature, what goes around comes around.

-- Art Latham

Posted by Art at May 9, 2008 10:10 AM