Drought leaves Lake Moultrie at lowest level since 1951

By Bo Petersen
Russellville, South Carolina (AP) 10-07

Lake Moultrie is giving up its ghosts – old tram beds, canal locks, turpentine kilns and arrowheads covered with mud. The drought is exposing miles of its shallow bottoms for the first time in years.

Kayakers and johnboaters who thread through acres of tree stumps in the Pineville-Russellville Flats can make their way to “Heat Stone Island,” named by the locals for the smooth rounded stones found there with holes plugged through them. Native Americans cooked those stones white-hot, then stuck in a stick to drop them in a pouch with water to cook corn.

The curious come across the remnants of rings of turpentine kilns from the turn of the 20th century, pottery, primitive and pioneer stone-tool points – the kinds of artifacts that Gary LeCroy, who has frequented the lake most of his life, last saw there some 20 years ago.

At full pond, Heat Stone Island is chest-deep under the water.

Lake Moultrie is down more than 5 feet – farther than at the worst of the severe 1999-2002 drought and dropping below the 1987 depth that last exposed so many miles of flats. The only time it fell lower was in 1951, when it dropped 10 feet.

It’s so bad that motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and even golf carts now cruise illegally where anglers used to cast and South Carolina Natural Resources officers are citing people for driving below the high-water mark. Nearly a third of the lake is now squishy ground, mostly around the undiked areas of its rim.

The Lowcountry has gotten some relief from the drought, but in spots. The recent rain left downtown Charleston about 8 inches drier for the year than the Charleston International Airport 10 miles away. Downtown is drier for the year than Greenville in the parched Upstate.

The Midlands and the Upstate had the driest July to September stretch since records were kept in 1948 and the year so far is the third-driest ever, said Hope Mizzell, state climatologist. Lake Moultrie is fed by rivers in the upstate and severely drought-stricken North Carolina.

October and November are traditionally among the state’s driest months anyway, and the long range climate forecast calls for below-normal precipitation through the winter. There’s been no move yet to declare the state in extreme drought and call for mandatory water conservation, but the drought continues to build, Mizzell said.

“We’re getting to the point where we need people to really start paying attention now so we don’t have to get to that extreme condition,” she said. “People need to conserve water voluntarily to avoid mandatory.”

But in a weird contrast, the drought in Lake Moultrie has become almost a historic attraction, a glimpse of Berkeley County’s sunken past. Even though larger motorboats are all but confined to the few old river channels, people are coming out to gape at things such as the foundations of old houses sticking out of the water like stalagmites.

“It’s kind of eerie,” said kayaker Wayne White.

The lake was created in the 1930s when the Santee River, a hub of prehistoric life and trade, was dammed. Hundreds of communities such as St. John’s and Chicora were abandoned. Plantations were flooded; farm families were relocated.

“That was a heavily inhabited area by the Native Americans, according to historians. And then the settlers moved in,” LeCroy said.

When LeCroy’s family moved to Moncks Corner in the 1950s, the lake spill turned generators that provided all the power Santee Cooper produced then. Lake levels would rise and fall more dramatically than today.

He and childhood friends would buy a sleeve of three shotgun shells and “a Pepsi-Cola and two packs of square cheese Nabs for a quarter.” They’d go out across exposed bottoms like Heat Stone Island, hunt ducks in the morning and artifacts in the afternoon.

“I was always fascinated by the lake, the thought that it was so much a part of the place in the past,” LeCroy said. “With the sand and the silt you don’t see things like you used to. But I still get a thrill out of finding a nice arrowhead.” The larger artifacts, like the tar kilns, are brittle enough to crumble to the touch.

“The best thing that could happen is for people to leave them alone,” he said. “They’re historically significant to this area.”

Information from: The Post and Courier,