South struggles to cope with drought
Georgia's governor declared a state of emergency for 85 counties in the state Saturday.
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"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.