Through its system of dams, Duke Energy has kept Lake Norman, which supplies cooling water to the plant, at around 7 feet below full pond since September - the lowest it can get for McGuire's backup safety systems to work. With a drought sapping water resources along the Catawba River's chain of lakes and the new McGuire system, Duke could lower Norman's water level to provide water for municipalities and other lakes.
The new system will allow the plant to operate at 10 feet below full pond, which would make an extra 29 billion gallons of water available.
"That is possible," Duke spokeswoman Rita Sipe said about a Lake Norman water level depletion.
"We don't know what the future holds. We hope it holds a lot of rain."
While the lake typically fills to near full pond in the summer, it began declining in late July and hovered at Duke's mandated 7-foot line in September. It's usually around 2 feet below full pond during that time of year. Lake Norman's level might have further fallen in the past few months if Duke hadn't purposely kept it high enough for McGuire.
Numerous boating hazards, such as previously unseen shoals and sunken trees, have already become exposed by the low water. Many boats at private docks also remain beached because of a lack of water, leading some to pay dredging companies to deepen their area.
Mac Byrum, a Lake Norman Marine commissioner and fishing guide, said the drop would closely resemble what Duke does every few years when it drops the lake to around 8 feet below full pond in the winter to do repairs.
"Really, you're only talking about 1 foot more (than what Duke occasionally does)," Byrum said. "It would leave some lake dwellers not able to get out. It could cause some hazards to the boating public."