Atlanta’s hotter, drier earlier

It has come for two weeks with numbing regularity — the squint-inducing glare, the oven-like heat, the radiating concrete, the string of 90 degree days with barely a hint of rain. And summer, or at least its official start, is still more than a week away.

Walter Purdy, a truck driver working on a road construction project in Dunwoody, wiped his brow and voiced a common concern. “Uh oh, here we go again. I think we’re seeing a drought again.”

After enduring a three-year drought ending in 2009, people start to wonder when they see extended weather forecasts showing nothing but sun.

Last July, state climatologist David Emory Stooksbury predicted there would be an “increased probability of widespread and significant drought” in Georgia in 2011. He was right — about the lower half of the state. Gov. Nathan Deal is seeking a federal disaster designation for 22 counties where farmers face withering crops.

Atlanta is simply “abnormally dry” and possibly getting drier, Stooksbury said. In the past 30 days, Atlanta has had just half its normal rainfall, but precipitation is normal for the past 90 days. Columbus, on the other hand, has seen just 17 percent of its normal rainfall in the past 30 days and just 40 percent in the past 90 days.

“The southern half of the state is worse than 2007,” Stooksbury said. “Atlanta is not anywhere near that — at this time.”

And, scientifically speaking, summer is already here, he said. Atmospheric scientists consider Memorial Day the beginning, not the June 21 summer solstice. Imagine, he said, Atlanta as a pot of water being heated, not an altogether difficult concept to envision. The heat is ignited in late May; the water starts to hit its peak boiling point in late June and then keeps that energy for a couple of months.

The past two weeks in Atlanta have seen temperatures about eight degrees warmer than normal. After a while, summer fuels itself.

“The sun can either evaporate water or heat the surface,” Stooksbury said. “If there’s no water, it’s going to heat the surface, which makes it hotter. Droughts and warmth feed off each other.”

There may be little water in the air, but the lakes are full in North Georgia, and residents and businesses have learned to use less water.

“The good news is we got our winter and spring rain,” said Pat Stevens, chief of environmental planning for the Atlanta Regional Commission. “Lake Lanier (which supplies much of the region’s water supply) is in pretty good shape. Our water supply is in pretty good shape.”

An ARC report this spring said the average metro Atlantan used 128 gallons of water a day in 2006, a 14 percent decrease from 2000 and below rates of cities like New York, Charlotte and Los Angeles. ARC officials said drought years like 2007 and 2008 and an exceedingly wet year like 2009 had even lower usages but were anomalies.

A combination of outdoor watering bans, plumbing changes such as low-flow toilets and sliding consumer water rates that rise as households use more have helped Atlantans conserve, Stevens said. The odd-even address system of watering of lawns and bushes has been lifted. But state law now forbids most outdoor watering during the hottest part of the day, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Although Lanier is in good shape, a continued drought in South Georgia could affect the metro area because the Army Corps of Engineers would have to divert water to the Flint River, Stevens said.

In the meantime, it’s just hot. Lane Bennett, a grading foreman on the Dunwoody road-widening project, said the annual heat wave hit a month early.

“This is July weather,” he said. “It’s hard because we haven’t had time to acclimate our bodies.”

But Bennett, who said he is glad to be working, is an optimist. “That’s just Georgia weather,” he said. “Next week, it will be 60” — he paused, laughing. “I hope.”

The cool temp is merely wishful thinking, but forecasters see an increased chance of showers the next few days.