Concerns and questions abound about the noticeably lower than usual water levels at many Philpott Lake boat ramps, and recent spates of wet weather contribute to the confusion about why the water level is so low.
“It’s a basic (concept), there’s just there’s just more going out than coming in, not enough rain. I know it’s been a lot recently, but over the whole summer it’s been pretty dry,” said Chris Powell, Operations Project Manager for the US Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Philpott Lake.
Powell said that although it has been wet recently, the wet period has not been usual the last few months.
Nick Fillo, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Blacksburg, said that the month of June was dry, with only 1.48 inches of rain reported as opposed to the monthly average of 4.41. However, July, August, and the first half of September have been above average.
He noted that 7.72 inches was reported in July compared to the average of 4.01 inches. August rainfall was reported at 8.87 inches compared to the average of 4.17, and so far this month, 5.79 inches was reported, compared to the monthly average of 5.09.
However, Fillo emphasized that the data compiled by the NWS was reported from an observer in Martinsville, and when dealing with summer thunderstorms, rainfall amounts can differ dramatically even within a small area.
“When you get into thunderstorm activity, what happens in one place doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens in another,” he said. “They could have had even more precipitation nearby or even less precipitation.”
The lake has been sitting at an estimated 967.3 feet, which is down roughly 5-feet from the September guide curve of 972.5 feet. Despite this, the area is not considered to be in a drought.
Philpott has been using sluice gate releases and low flow valves, he said.
The minimum sluice gate release is 250 cfs (cubic feet per second), which is the rate the lake is currently using, with a goal of helping to preserve the health of the Smith River.
“It’s mainly to keep the Smith River healthy downstream. Our concern is if we go to the low flow valves, there might be some temperature spikes in the river that might not be good for the fish species in the river,” Powell said.
He added that the lake is not currently at risk, nor are any of its usages.
“The only impact right now, we currently have two boat ramps that are closed. One lane at Ramp #1 is closed and the Roland’s Branch Boathouse is closed,” he said, adding that most of the boat ramps still have a way to go before the levels are low enough to close them.
While only time will tell how low the later levels will fall, Powell said that he does not believe there is any immediate cause for concern.
“It shouldn’t affect Philpott Lake that much more. We’ve still got some ways to go before it would impact drinking water or boat ramps,” he said.
The dam is not currently being used to generate electricity, though this is not related to the water levels. Power generation has not been active since a landslide damaged the dam’s powerhouse in 2020. Restoration efforts are underway, but are not expected to be completed for a couple more years.
“There’s a contract out right now to stabilize the hillside and also a separate contract to actually fix or replace or rehab the generators and the turbines. All of that is going on right now,” Powell said. “We won’t be generating for at least another two, three years probably.”
In the meantime, Powell urges lake goers to use caution when dealing with lower than normal water levels.
“I’d just advise people that, when it does go down, to be safe in the water,” he said. “Be extra cautious when you’re out on the water and look for things that you may not normally see.”