What a difference a year makes.
September 2018 saw a whopping 12.2 inches of rain fall in Scott County — smashing the record for the wettest-ever September in Oneida and beginning a year of excessive rainfall, with total amounts topping 80 inches from September 2018 through August 2019.
But September 2019 featured less than half an inch of rain — the second driest year on record in Oneida, plunging the region into a moderate-to-severe drought that forecasters say will continue through the autumn months.
The latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor — a collaboration of state and federal agencies — shows pockets of severe drought throughout East Tennessee, including Scott County. According to the Drought Monitor, 40 percent of the state is now in a moderate drought, and about one-tenth of the state’s land mass is in a severe drought.
The abnormally dry conditions have not yet caused significant problems, but officials remain on high alert. After the tragic 2016 wildfire season, no one is taking chances. A ban on open fires remains in effect throughout the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, except in select frontcountry campgrounds. And while burn permits would be required for outdoor burning on private property by now — the requirement begins on October 15 each year — permits have already been required for more than two weeks by the Tennessee Division of Forestry.
So far, wildfires have not been a significant concern. According to the Division of Forestry, there were three wildfires in the Cumberland District over the weekend, and two more in the East Tennessee District. Combined, those fires burned only 10 acres. For the year-to-date, there have been nearly 280 wildfires across the two districts, burning more than 3,300 acres.
While the excess rainfall for much of the year has delayed the drought’s impact on water tables, the decline of reservoirs is starting to become noticeably visible, and streamflows are at near-record lows for this time of year. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s gauge at Leatherwood Ford, the Big South Fork River was flowing at 31 cubic feet per second (cfs) late Monday. That’s a level seen in mid October less than 25 percent of the time. The normal stream flow for this time of year is just over 200 cfs.
The record low stream flow for Monday’s date was 12.3 cfs, set in 2008.
Further upstream, the USGS gauge at Burnt Mill Bridge recorded a stream flow of just six cfs at Clear Fork — about one-fourth the norm.
Still, things aren’t as bad as they could be. Light rain has been received across the region this month, and the Division of Forestry’s fire forecast highlighted the potential for soaking rains this weekend. The National Weather Service’s Morristown weather forecast office hasn’t yet gotten too specific with the forecast of rain this weekend, except to say in a forecast discussion Monday afternoon that an atmospheric trough will move east and increase rain chances by the end of the weekend. The most optimistic computer guidance models are showing up to two inches of rain across the northern plateau before the system exits the area early next week. And some of those models show another potent rain-maker impacting the region by the end of next week.