Georgia imposes mandatory water restrictions as drought worsens

Georgia imposed stiff new water restrictions on Thursday as a worsening drought threatened the state's supply.

The state Environmental Protection Division declared a Level 2 drought in 52 counties, including metro Atlanta and much of north Georgia, that limits outdoor watering to two days a week. With little rain and smoke-spewing wildfires creeping toward metro Atlanta, the order calls for the toughest water limits since the devastating droughts of the late 2000s.

“During this prolonged period of severe drought in Georgia, we are bolstering the state’s drought response in more than 100 counties,” said Gov. Nathan Deal, adding: "We urge these communities to act accordingly, use good judgment and avoid outdoor burning and watering while we continue to work with the EPD and pray for rain across the state."

State regulators declared 53 north Georgia counties in "Level 1" drought in September as large swaths of the state plunged into extremely dry conditions, and on Monday Deal extended the order to 110 counties and banned fireworks in drought-stricken areas. That designation required public water systems to inform customers about the dry conditions - and what they can do to conserve.

After the second-hottest summer in Atlanta’s recorded history, conservationists and water planners fear another sustained drought will suck reservoirs dry and shrivel crops. About half the state is in “severe” or “extreme” drought conditions, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. And the northwest corner of the state is categorized as an “exceptional” drought.

The state's order on Thursday restricts outdoor watering to an odd-even schedule. Residents in even-numbered addresses can water Wednesdays and Saturdays before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m., while those in odd-numbered addresses can water on Thursdays and Sundays before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

Washing hard surfaces, such as streets and sidewalks, using water for ornamental purposes, non-commercial pressure washing and car washing and the use of fire hydrants except for firefighting is also banned.

State environmentalists studied rainfall, stream flows, lake levels, soil moisture and other calculations before making the decision. And this week marks the 24th week of continuous severe drought in northwest Georgia - and the 22nd consecutive week for the Atlanta metro area.

The new limits dredge up memories of the epic drought of the late 2000s, when dry conditions spreading like an inkblot across the South led to dried-up lakes and riverbeds and water restrictions across much of the state.

Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta's main water supply, plunged to new lows in late 2007. The sinking lake forced marinas to shutter and exposed the remnants of a long-inundated race track, forcing local governments to dust off long-forgotten emergency plans. At one point, metro Atlanta had less than 90 days of water supply left.

Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue declared an emergency, ordered strict water restrictions and lobbied federal authorities to reduce water flowing out of government reservoirs. He also publicly prayed for rain and pressed for a sweeping conservation plan in 2010.

Another drought in 2011 stretching across 14 states from Georgia to Arizona devastated crops and dried up wells, hitting the rural southern part of the state particularly hard.

“At this stage, we should assume that this will be a multi-year drought,” said Boyd Austin, Chair of the Metro Water District. “We must be responsible stewards of our water resources. That means watering only when it’s necessary, not twice a week just because that’s allowed. I’m confident that our region, its local governments and its residents will take the necessary steps during this drought to conserve water.”

Those counties assigned a Level 2 Drought Response are: Banks, Barrow, Bartow, Butts, Carroll, Catoosa, Chattooga, Cherokee, Athens-Clarke, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, Dade, Dawson, DeKalb, Douglas, Fannin, Fayette, Floyd, Forsyth, Fulton, Gilmer, Gordon, Gwinnett, Habersham, Hall, Haralson, Harris, Heard, Henry, Jackson, Lamar, Lumpkin, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Murray, Newton, Oconee, Paulding, Pickens, Pike, Polk, Rockdale, Spalding, Troup, Union, Upson, Walker, Walton, White and Whitfield.