Georgia Drought Persists Despite Rains from Hurricanes

October 14, 2008

The banks of Georgia’s Lake Lanier look about the same as last year: Closed boat ramps, parched soil and lonely islands peeking above the surface that should be covered by a dozen feet of water.

Epic drought forced officials across the Southeast about a year ago to impose severe water restrictions and warn that Atlanta, ground zero for the dry conditions, could be just months from running short of water.

While the drought has eased, its tendrils still extend far and wide across the region. All it takes as reminder of the drought’s grip is a look at the level of the lake, Atlanta’s main water supply, which is more than 17 feet below normal.

“I’ll tell you, we’re paying attention,” said Billy Calhoun, a former fishing guide who works along the shores of Lanier. “We’re not forgetting about the drought.”

The drought spread like a dark blot across the region last year and forced state and local officials to order the sweeping water restrictions to save dwindling resources. Landscaping companies went under, cars stayed dirty and some towns worried about running dry.

The response from many corners of the region was swift.

Georgia banned virtually all outdoor watering throughout the northern part of the state. The legal battle over federal water rights among Georgia, Florida and Alabama intensified. And legislators in Tennessee and Georgia sparred over rights to the Tennessee River.

This time around, though, the rhetoric has been noticeably subdued. Politicians are still urging conservation and forecasters still warn the drought is months from ending, but the sense of urgency has vanished.

Timely rain from tropical storms and hurricanes have helped. They produced badly needed rain across the region, replenishing reservoirs and streams. Some 64 percent of the region is now locked in drought, compared to 78 percent last year, according to federal forecasters. Only 2 percent of the area is in the worst category, compared to 24 percent last year.

Conservation efforts have helped usher in double-digit water savings in some areas. Water use in north Georgia, for instance, was down 24 percent in August compared with usage the year before.

“People are getting the conservation message,” said Kevin Chambers of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Georgia also benefited from new guidelines by the Army Corps of Engineers, overseer of federal water resources. It allowed Lanier to keep more of its water. The Corps released an average of 683 million gallons of water every day from Lanier in September, compared to more than 1.1 billion gallons a day the same month last year.

Still, some of those improvements may be short-lived.

Corps spokeswoman Lisa Coghlan warned that dry months could force the agency to release more water. “As we continue to draw down lower basins,” she said, “we will have to tap back into Lanier.”

Forecasters, meanwhile, have continued to warn residents to brace for more dry weather.

Alabama sent a dispatch last month warning that utilities should continue to plan in case the drought worsens. And South Carolina said some 155 water systems have heeded its call for voluntary water restrictions.

“We’re not in the clear yet,” said South Carolina climatologist Hope Mizzell, whose agency is evaluating how to respond to dry wells and higher forest fire risks.

At Lanier, business seems slow but steady.

Tourists still stop by Jeff “Buddha” Powell’s shop — The Dam Store — to buy bait.

Locals still skip out of work to spend time on the beach. But there are only a handful of open boat docks these days, and some fear the improvement from last year has overshadowed the region’s tenuous water situation.

But some still fear that the drought could be a lesson that was all-too-soon forgotten.

“This is something that the lake goes through. It will come back — and everything will be rosy again,” said Calhoun, the ex-guide. “But maybe next time, they’ll be a little more cautious.”

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