Checking OWASA’s Reservoirs After a Dry 2021

Orange County, home to OWASA’s drinking water reservoirs and the community served by OWASA, received less rain than normal over 2021, spending portions of the year in the Abnormally Dry and Moderate Drought designations. OWASA’s reservoirs, however, remained more than 90 percent full throughout the calendar year.

Monitoring Conditions

A bit of rain in mid-December was a welcome gift approaching the holiday season, but it did not change the general outlook as the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council (DMAC) still categorized much of central North Carolina as experiencing a Moderate Drought. That designation was in large part due to most of North Carolina receiving less than one inch of rain during the entire month of November; just .71 inches of rain was recorded at the monitoring station near OWASA’s main campus in Carrboro over the entire month.

OWASA Planning and Development Manager Ruth Rouse recently said that monitoring these drought reports is useful for several reasons, including understanding how conditions are impacting our neighboring utilities. OWASA has mutual-aid agreements in place with other local utilities to move treated drinking water between the agencies should the need arise for one reason or another. Knowing who can help in times of need or who might soon be requesting assistance, Rouse said, is an important piece of information for OWASA.

Seeing the impact of a drought can come in stages, Rouse said, coming through a noticeable lack of rain (metrological drought), then crops beginning to dry out (agricultural drought), and water supply in reservoirs starting to decrease (hydrological drought).

“I think we were seeing the impacts within our service area of those first two, but we haven’t with our reservoirs.”

Another contributing factor that set OWASA’s reservoirs up well was the amount of rain received in late 2020, carrying over into early 2021.

“You want reservoirs to be close to full going into the spring,” Rouse said. “So, the timing of the year is important to us when we are looking at reservoir levels as well.”


Water use by OWASA customers has also been down throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of that is attributable to larger institutions moving to remote operations early in the pandemic as well as continued below-normal use as some operations returned in-person throughout 2021.

Another factor is the general mindset of conservation among OWASA’s customer base. Rouse said being good community stewards of our water supply helps all of us in the long term.

“Our customers’ conservation really helps us prolong our water supply,” Rouse said.

A partnership with UNC – Chapel Hill to run reclaimed water that has been highly treated at the Mason Farm Wastewater Treatment Plant back to campus for non-drinking purposes has also allowed the current water supply to be more drought-resistant.

Future Planning

Having an adequate water supply for our community today is thanks, in large part, to the planning from previous OWASA employees, Board members, and the community.

Another iteration of that planning process is also underway right now, with Rouse leading the effort to bring options to the OWASA Board of Directors. She added that it is common practice among water providers to plan for water supply options 50 years into the future.

“While I feel really good about where we’re sitting now,” Rouse said, “as we continue to grow and our water use goes up and with the uncertainty of climate change, I want to make sure that in 20 or 30 years our community is sitting in a good position in terms of what’s the next water supply source.”

The OWASA Board is scheduled to continue discussing the Long-Range Water Supply Plan at a work session on January 13, 2022. You can view the agenda for that meeting here.