One of the tributaries that feeds the Cumberland River, the Poor Fork, is also the primary water source for the city of Cumberland. And the "exceptional" drought classification that Harlan County is now under is evident with the shallow flow of the Poor Fork, which prompted a water usage advisory for the city.
"It's extremely low," said Lewis. "That's what's got us concerned."
Lewis reports that levels at the Cumberland Water Plant are normal, and a pool of dammed-up water near the plant is also in good supply, but there is a concern, given the severity of the drought, that the outtake may become greater than the intake.
"And that's when it will be a critical situation," Lewis said. "We're not there yet. We're just under a voluntary conservation advisory to try and lessen the demand."
According to the Kentucky Division of Water's environmental control supervisor, Bill Caldwell, cities like Cumberland, Benham and Lynch, which are located on the upper Cumberland, do stand more of a chance for an advisory to be elevated to an alert because the towns are located at the headwaters. He confirmed Division of Water officials have been closely monitoring the situation.
"We're operating on a watch basis right now," said Caldwell.
Besides Cumberland, Evarts is the only other city that has issued a water conservation advisory.
"And people living in areas where advisories have been issued need to abide by that," Caldwell said. "Harlan County is in a region that's reporting a 18- to 20-inch rain deficit for the year. That's a tremendous deficit, and odds are we could go longer in this drought, and it will take a long time to recover. So while water levels may be currently at good levels within cities, if this deficit continues, it could easily get worse."
Caldwell said under an advisory, voluntary water conservation was urged. The next step up, if conditions worsen, is a water usage alert. Under an alert, excess water usage, like the operation of car washes, is banned.
"People need to understand that at some point in time, it may come to an alert," Caldwell said. "We're not saying it will, but odds are it could based on the forecast. This drought is far from average. It's the real deal. I don't think there's been a drought this severe since the 1950s."
Evarts Mayor Burl Fee said his city's water levels were currently "good" but explained he issued an advisory as a precautionary measure.
"Right now we're fine," he said. "But that could change if we don't get some rain. We just want residents to cut back on unnecessary usage, like kids playing out in the yards with garden hoses."
Mayors in Benham and Lynch also reported that their towns' water levels were presently normal but confirmed the situation was being closely monitored.
Harlan Water Works Director Otis Lewis also said his system's broad coverage area, which includes the city of Loyall, "was in fine shape."
"We're concerned and we're monitoring the levels," Lewis said. "But we're not in the critical state that other water systems in the immediate area are in. Two weeks from now, that may change."
Most municipal water sources in Harlan County, Caldwell said, come from mines, and he credited mayors and water plant operators with working conservatively with those sources.
"Everybody's holding their own right now," Caldwell said. "It's good to have the source of water they have from these mines, but they've got their limits, too."