South struggles to cope with drought

Georgia's governor declared a state of emergency for 85 counties in the state Saturday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Kids in Jefferson, Ga., are shutting the tap off as they brush their teeth. Adults are doing bigger, but fewer, laundry loads. And just about everybody is glancing nervously at the puddle passing for the town's reservoir.

Like many in the South, the people of this farm town turned Atlanta suburb have not given much thought to water consumption in the past. But with their well literally running dry, residents have curtailed water consumption by 25 percent. Now they just hope it's enough.

"We can't say we're surprised," says Bill Lawrence, an owner of a video-game shop here. "We knew it was coming."

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The historic drought gripping the South forced Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to declare a state of emergency on Saturday in 85 counties, and to ask President Bush to declare them a major disaster area.

In some areas, "snitch patrols" have formed and local officials have imposed $500 fines to stop midnight lawn watering. In at least one South Carolina town, full-soak baptisms have been curtailed.

For popular residential and industrial destinations like Georgia and North Carolina, the drought is a lesson in moderation and humility for a region that owes much of its success to easy availability of resources – especially water, experts say.

"To a large extent, an event like this is a shot over the bow of prodevelopment thinking," says Ron Griffin, a resource economist at Texas A&M University in College Station. "If we're going to have [development] aligned with the actual resource base, including water, some things are going to need to change."

An "exceptional" drought – the National Weather Service's worst drought category – now covers 26 percent of the South, including parts of Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia, as well as North and South Carolina. Though the drought is largely hidden behind the region's greenery, some experts predict that Atlanta may run out of water by New Year's Eve.

From a landlocked Lake Lanier boat ramp on Saturday, Governor Perdue announced that the state has filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the US Army Corps of Engineers to stop releasing water for the benefit of endangered species of mussels and sturgeon far downstream from Atlanta.

The situation exacerbates a long-standing dispute between Florida, Alabama, and Georgia over Atlanta's use of the Chattahoochee River, which ties the city's growth potential to the economic health of its neighbor, Alabama, as well as to the wellbeing of oyster beds and floodplains hundreds of miles to the south in Florida.

"Georgians are saving water and conserving water, but it's not doing any good" because of the Army Corps' actions, says Janet Ward, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management.

Perdue warned Washington that the price of allowing the Corps to empty the lake could include forcing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to truck in bottled water for 5 million of the state's residents. US officials claim that Lanier is not doing as poorly as some predict, but they acknowledge that it may be possible to make smaller releases.

"The three reasons we're in a pickle right now is lack of rain, an increase in the population, and decisions made by the Army Corps of Engineers," says David Stooksbury, Georgia's chief climatologist.

Although the region has struggled with drought nearly every summer since 2001, wet winters have usually recharged reservoirs. The problem now is that there's a 45 percent chance of a drier than normal winter, which could compound the summer's lack of rain, says Ryan Boyles of the North Carolina State Climate Office. A stubborn high-pressure system – possibly because of a developing "La Nina" effect – has limited once-common afternoon thundershowers, and has steered storm systems into the lower Southwest, triggering floods in Texas.

"Even though it's always been a precious resource, water has never been something in the Southeast that we've had to prioritize," says Mr. Boyles. That's now changing, he says.

The regional landscaping industry has taken $1.2 billion in losses since June as residents have let lawns brown and held off on gardening plans. So far, states including Georgia haven't imposed tighter water controls for industry, but such steps could come shortly, bringing even more economic turmoil.

•Upstream from Apalachicola, Fla., the world-famous tupelo honey industry is in dire straits, as drier conditions and changing ecologies threaten the area's massive tupelo stands.

•In Lake Lanier, water is pouring out five times as fast as it's coming in, and most boaters have given up on the lake, even as men with metal detectors stomp across the now-arid flats, looking for treasure.

•In Athens, Ga., home to the University of Georgia, "49 tips" on how to conserve water is the most popular link among students on Facebook, the social networking website. With Bear Creek down to a trickle, Athens has imposed a no-exemption watering ban, and its city fountains sit bone-dry.

•Tiny Orme, Tenn., uses its firetruck to haul water after the town's spring dried up for lack of rain. The mayor turns a spigot on the town's rusty water tower every evening and turns it off three hours later.

•Rock Spring, S.C., has been without water for a month. Farmers are hauling water by pickup truck to keep their cattle alive. The local baptist minister has had to postpone several baptisms, because its indoor vessel takes more than 600 gallons of water.

"The preacher mentioned in jest that we may have to start going to sprinkling," says resident Alvin Wylie.

The problems of pulling emergency lines from water-rich towns to thirsty ones and new treatment requirements for deeper water, which tends to be more polluted with silt and chemicals, have largely caught the region flat-footed, says Mr. Stooksbury.

He added that there's a risk that residents and policymakers will quickly forget about the drought of 2007 once the rains finally come. But if the weather stays dry deep into 2008, the severity of the water crunch could help resolve long-standing regional disputes driven largely by economic self-interest up to this point, some say.

"Everybody had basically given up hope that the states would ever sit down and negotiate [over water conservation], so hopefully this drought will drive everybody back to the table to get real work done," says Andrew Smith, a spokesman for Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a conservation group.

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