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Exceptional drought conditions emerge in western North Carolina


For the first time since the drought of 2008, exceptional drought conditions have moved into Clay and Cherokee counties, the two most western counties in North Carolina.

Exceptional drought is the highest level of drought determined by the N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council and the U.S. Drought Monitor. Extreme drought, or the second highest of the four drought categories, has spread to three additional western counties, bringing the total number of counties in extreme drought to nine.

“The southeastern U.S. has been under persistent high pressure for the past few months and this has led to above normal temperatures while suppressing rainfall,” said Rebecca Ward, climatologist for the drought council and the state climate office. “The dryness in the mountains has persisted since May and several counties are now seeing one of their top driest years based on more than 105 years of records.”

Counties that have been upgraded into extreme drought conditions include Buncombe, Haywood, and Jackson. These counties join Graham, Henderson, Macon, Polk, Swain and Transylvania. Counties that have been upgraded into severe drought conditions are Lincoln and Rutherford. They join Burke, Cleveland, Madison and McDowell counties. To see the latest drought map, go to

Dry conditions in this region are fueling more than a dozen wildfires that are burning thousands of acres of the Nantahala National Forest. In western North Carolina, more than 100 fires have burned thousands of acres since the beginning of November. Because of the increased fire risk, the N.C. Forest Service issued a ban on all open burning in 25 western North Carolina counties until further notice.

“This drought is one that primarily affects agriculture, not water systems,” said Brian Long, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Agriculture, an agency that also contributes to the state drought council. “In addition to wildfires, these conditions are also affecting the long-term availability of hay for cattle as well the pastures where livestock graze.”

Still, seven water systems in the drought regions have enacted mandatory water conservation restrictions. Numerous other systems have enacted voluntary conservation. To see water systems’ conservation status, go to For ways to use water efficiently, visit

Members of the N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council discuss weekly the variables that determine drought: climate, streamflow, groundwater levels, the amount of water stores in reservoirs, soil moisture and the time of year. The determinants of that meeting are then reflected on the U.S. Drought Monitor, a map of the nation’s drought conditions released each Thursday. This map is produced jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

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