Cover Story: Catawba Lakes - waters rising

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - After days of heavy rain the concern now becomes rising waters on area lakes.  In our Cover Story, PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson shows us who's managing the lake levels and what's being done right now to ward against flooding.

Because of all the rain we've been getting many of our lakes are reaching capacity right now.  On Thursday, Duke Energy opened the gates of the Oxford Dam to lower the water level in Lake Hickory.

Duke owns and manages the lakes and started releasing water over the weekend days before the rains came.
Think of the lakes on the Catawba basin.. a dozen bathtubs all connected.

Letting water out of one.. fills up and you have to let water out of the next.. and with all the rain we've had this week.. they've been busy.

They opened up the flood gates on Lake Hickory this morning..  flooding Catawba county's Riverbend Park..  below the Oxford Dam.. closing it for the foreseeable future.

Unusual for this time of year.. fall traditionally a dry spell.  Normally they're holding onto water to keep the lakes from getting too low.

But days and days of rain.. remnants of tropical storm Ida..  have filled up area lakes.  And so Duke Energy which manages the system has been running its hydroelectric dams and releasing water like crazy.. and has been since the weekend.

"There's Lake Hickory..."

Andy Thompson with Duke.. showed us on the map.. it's a complicated system of releasing water out of one lake impacting another.

"Look at it as a chain," he says, "you move water here you have to move water continuously."

A few lakes in the Catawba basin are already above full pond.. others like in the upper Lake Wylie area.. near the Wilkinson Boulevard Bridge are lapping at the shoreline.

"The idea there is to move it in a balanced way so that we minimize any high water conditions that you might see along the river and our lakes," says Thompson.

And most of the time it's done without major disruptions.. but not always.

Five years ago Mountain Island Lake went over its spillway.. the lake five feet over full pond.. water went gushing down the Catawba River valley below.

Homes along Riverside Drive in northwest Mecklenburg county were inundated.. and neighbors weren't happy.

"Got a call at 6:30.. need some help get the furniture up off the floor," said one neighbor.

What was at fault then.. remnants of three tropical storms dumped tons of rain in the mountains and Piedmont and the lakes couldn't hold it all at one.

Lake Hickory.. where the gate was opened today.. and Lookout Shoals Lake are at or above full pond.. but since they empty into Lake Norman.. the state's largest lake.. Duke Energy officials say they don't foresee any major flooding problems.

"It's an extremely large.. hydroelectric lake.  That allows us to store a lot of water so that we can release it more slowly and it has less impact on the smaller lakes," says Thompson.

Also different this time we haven't had as much rain as in 2004 when the Catawba flooded.  Across the basin this time we've averaged almost three and a half inches of rain.  Duke will keep releasing water the rest of this week through the weekend.