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South's ill-timed drought may further crimp U.S. economy

The region's booming growth has counterbalanced trouble elsewhere. But the long dry spell is taking a toll.

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"The country was founded on the theme of superabundance," says Andy Harper, an environmental historian at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "We haven't changed our approaches and consumption patterns ... [so] it's time to pay the price of that willful ignorance."

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So far, Southerners are adjusting in small, sometimes meaningful, ways to weeks of little to no rain. In the silver lining department, Chris, a Decatur skateboarder, points out that empty pools make excellent skateboarding ramps.

Cities and towns are adjusting, too, as the drought begins to have political implications. One Atlanta suburb recently enacted a moratorium on rezoning land for commercial or residential use to try to lessen its impact on the state's two main reservoirs, Lakes Lanier and Allatoona. In Raleigh, N.C., some politicians say a water impact fee should be charged to discourage runaway development – which many blame, along with the weather, for the drought.

Such ideas could undermine the South's economic vitality, says Philip Isley (R), a Raleigh city councilor. He points to a recent Brookings Institution report that calls fast-growing metro areas, especially in the Sunbelt, the last remaining stallions of the US economy. "I'm concerned that these so-called water policies are really stalking horses for growth moratoriums," says Mr. Isley.

Other critics claim that measures such as pool bans could work against conservation efforts by alienating residents at a time when their cooperation is needed most.

"You have to make a rational decision about what is a good policy and what is a bad policy," says Georgia state Rep. Chip Rogers (R), who has introduced a bill that would stop the state from closing the pools. "To take such a drastic measure and cancel every swim team and prevent every parent from having a weekend at the pool with the kids is a little too much."

Water issues are likely to dog the Southeast well into the future, says Robin Craig, an environmental law professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "A lot of communities are telling themselves that this will all go away when the drought goes away, but I don't think it will," says Professor Craig. "Until you get the message across at a gut level that this isn't a resource you can take for granted ... yeah, changes are going to be hard politically."