In central North Carolina, there's little water anywhere

To cope with a drought, Raleigh slaps some residents with $1,000 fines for excess water use.

All seems ordinary until you breach Woodpecker Ridge and descend to Falls Lake. That's when you can see that the water is almost gone, creating a moonscape with an exposed lake bed.

A severe local drought - one of three in the US right now - has nearly emptied Falls Lake, the only water supply for North Carolina's capital city.

After the skies stayed Carolina blue for too long and water users failed to cut consumption by 15 percent, the city last week started handing out $1,000 fines - some of the heaviest in history for a city in the East - for violating watering restrictions. In Raleigh, seven water-thief detectives rely on tips to investigate illegal taps.

In nearby Chatham County, people must limit their showers to four minutes. Half-panicked officials say they have no choice: Unless there's heavy rain, the lake could be empty by January.

"People need to come and see it so they'll believe it," says Raleigh native Kay Buchanan, wrinkling her brow at the dry lake bottom. "It's unreal."

The dry spell affecting this 700,000-square-mile watershed - which supplies water to some 600,000 people - is a paradox of nature in what could otherwise be called the Year of the Storm.

To some, the low water is a precursor to water wars east of the Mississippi. Without the deep reservoirs of the West, many fast-growing cities, especially those in the Southeast, are vulnerable to shortages. Add rapid construction, land annexations, and new immigration and, suddenly, a blip in the weather can turn into a time for rain dances.

"This population movement, [coming] on top of drought, has really created some pretty serious situations, which give way to pretty severe penalties [for those who violate water-use restrictions]," says Donald Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Duck hunters are coming up empty because manmade waterfowl impoundments or low-lying areas that wildlife managers manually flood to lure ducks for fall hunting lay dry. Small landscaping and painting companies struggle because of restrictions on watering and powerwashers.

"It's unfortunately gotten to the point where we're putting people out of business," says George Rogers, Raleigh's watershed manager and stalwart recipient of many an incensed call.

Pull-starting the motor on his wooden skiff, Bob Weaver sets out for his daily tour of Falls Lake. He says he believes the soaking rains will come in December - they usually do. Hopes of a turnaround lifted after rain swept through the area during the past two days.

"But the city has to do more than hope - this is all the water they've got," he shouts over the roar of the engine.

Others are taking it in stride. Jake Hall, a local painter, has seen his work drop off. So he's trekked out onto the lake bottom and set up catfish poles. As the lake dries up, the main Eno River channel is easily accessible, and the fish are packed like, well, sardines. Snapshots of his catches hang on the board up at the Cheek Road Grill.

"It's a desert out here, but the fishing's great," he says.

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