Georgia ratchets up drought alert

Metro Atlanta’s sustained hot weather and paucity of rain prompted state officials Friday to issue the year’s first drought alert, with the prospect of warm and dry days continuing well into the fall.

Most of North Georgia is in a “severe” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with large swaths experiencing “extreme” drought. The state Environmental Protection Division instituted Friday “drought response Level 1” for 53 North Georgia counties, a designation that requires public water systems to inform customers about drought conditions and what can be done to curtail water usage.

Those counties include Carroll, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett.

“Water utilities have already taken action to ensure that water supplies are generally good, and practicing effective water conservation will help provide sufficient supplies through the coming months if dry conditions persist,” EPD Director Richard Dunn said.

There is no change in watering restrictions: Georgians may only water outdoors between 4 p.m. and 10 a.m.

If, though, the skies remain cloudless, the EPD will likely ratchet up the drought alarm. A Level 2 drought, for example, limits outdoor watering to two days a week.

The summer of 2016 is officially Atlanta’s second-hottest ever with its seemingly ceaseless parade of days of 90-plus degrees. (For climatologists, summer runs from June 1 through Aug. 31. Only Atlanta’s summer of 1980 was hotter than 2016, according to National Weather Service records that date to 1887.)

Riverkeepers and water planners fear the beginning of a new, sustained drought across metro Atlanta. Georgia succumbed to two nasty droughts in the past decade, and memories remain seared by dried-up streams and dirt-encrusted cars.

For much of 2007-08, Lake Lanier resembled a half-filled bathtub, with boaters swerving around newly exposed treetops. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a drought emergency, imposed strict restrictions on lawn watering and publicly prayed for rain.

Four years later, more than half the state suffered an extreme, or “exceptional,” drought as crops withered in South Georgia and Florida fumed over low Chattahoochee River flows at the border.

State water officials consider precipitation, stream flows, groundwater and lake levels, soil moisture, and short-term climate predictions in making drought designations. Warning signs abound, especially as Georgia readies for the usually dry fall and winter months.

“EPD’s announcement is designed to make folks aware that drought conditions do in fact exist, despite spotty showers and the tropical storm that marched across the southern half of the state,” said Chris Manganiello, the policy director for the nonprofit Georgia River Network. “This is a good first step, particularly if this is indeed the early stage of a multiple-season drought.”

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Staff writer Lauren Foreman contributed to this article.