The mine entrance near Cove Road. Tossing rocks into the darkness produces a splash not far down. Showing the mines, City Water Superintendent David Hall said they have measured and modeled and calculated that all the twisting corridors of former marble mines there hold 300 million gallons of water when it’s full to the entrance.
With the splash not far down, Hall said they likely have 270 million gallons there now.
Water seepage into the caverns constantly produces some refill. But Hall said for an extreme-worst-case scenario, figure starting with 270 million gallons, and if you made urgent pleas for conservation and with restrictions, the city could cut their daily usage down to 1.5 million gallons, so the mines (with no other sources) would provide water for the city for six months allowing for some natural refill.
With weeks of dry conditions already in the books and more dry weather forecasted, Jasper Water Superintendent David Hall said their supply is okay right now, with plenty of reserves, “but if things continue to be dry we may have to take some action,” he said.
Hall elaborated that he foresees the city being fine well into 2020 with a lingering drought.
But what causes concern is if weather history repeats itself with conditions that were experienced in 2006-2007. Hall explained where droughts really create fear among water managers is when you have a very dry fall and winter and then miss spring rains, that next summer will require more drastic measures like watering bans.
“It has been so wet for so long, it has got us set here at the beginning of this short term drought. But if it is still dry after the first of next year, you may see some type of restrictions,” he said.
The city pulls its water from Long Swamp Creek, which is lower than usual. These low levels are caused naturally by the lack of recent rain.
However, the lack of flow now also comes from the completion of major work on Grandview Lake’s dam upstream. While dam work was underway, the lake was constantly being drained into the creek. With the drains removed, the lake is refilling, so less water is going on downstream.
“Long Swamp Creek already has a tendency to not do well in droughts, and from what it looks like the lake lacks about 20 feet before it’s full,” Hall said. “They aren’t discharging into Long Swamp anymore.”
Demand for water is up 20 percent, which further exacerbates the issue. Hall said the city will have to take from its emergency reserves in the mines off Cove Road when their pumps in Long Swamp Creek start to pull air. The city doesn’t have to pull from the mines every year, “like last year for example it was so wet we were praying for it to stop raining.”
Hall continued, “the good thing is the mines are full right now. That’s about 300 million gallons of water we can use if we need it – but this is a short-term drought. It’s dry now, but we have had some rain. If we go another three, four, five months of these dry conditions we’ll get into a longer-term extended drought and that’s when we would start to get worried.”
He likened the city’s supply of water from the mines to the country’s strategic oil reserves.
“Those oil reserves are there for short term conflicts and to keep the prices stable,” he said.
Looking ahead, Hall said the city and county should consider taking stock of any abandoned mines or places where water is pumped from mines and jointly establish a reserve system using them.
Hall noted that the city is running about two miles of waterline from Edgewood subdivision (on Grandview Road), where the city’s line ends, to near Grandview Lake where Pickens County is building a water treatment facility. The city will purchase water from the county when the project is complete.
“I wish we had that now, but when it does get finished that is going to help in these situations,” he said.
Hall added that the county will be required to maintain a discharge flow into Long Swamp Creek when the water treatment facility is up and running, which will also help keep the city’s supply healthy during dry periods.
“We pull our water from small streams,” he said, “so we tend to get affected quicker than areas with larger water sources. Here, municipalities don’t have any control over our larger lakes – Bent Tree, Grandview, Big Canoe, those are all private.”
More strict water conservation restrictions are state-mandated, which he said is typically based on water levels at Lake Lanier.
“I don’t see us having those restrictions anytime this year,” he said.
The dry conditions are impacting farmers, gardeners and businesses as well.
Kristina Crook of Hinton Milling, a feed and seed store in west Pickens, said they are seeing major impacts in the fall gardening portion of their business.
“We’ve got cabbage, collards, fall lettuce, herbs, and none of it is moving,” she said. “People aren’t planting. They can’t. Seeds aren’t coming up and plants are dying. People aren’t fertilizing or planting grass seed. It’s too dry.”
Crook said creeks, streams and lakes are lowering or drying up, “which means people are having to water their livestock. They are focusing more on that right now.”
People who rely on their harvest to provide food might water their gardens, “but a lot don’t. It just depends,” she said.
And with the end of the planting season fast approaching, the window for fall gardens is closing fast.
“We’re getting close to the end,” she said. “You can go to the end of September or the first few weeks in October, but after that it’s pretty much over.”