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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 / October 22, 2007



JEFFERSON, Ga.

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.

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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."

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.

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