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Clayton, Henry unaffected by national drought issues

By Johnny Jackson

Lawns are turning brown in Chicago. Across other parts of the Midwest, flowers are wilting. Water levels are so low that ducks can stand in some rivers, and streams.

Chicago, WGN-TV meteorologist Dennis Haller said this is the driest summer so far in 135 years. The city has stopped watering the grass at parks.

The drought is stunting corn, rice, and soybean crops across the nation's Farm Belt and is also leading many communities in more urban parts of the Midwest to ban lawn-watering and urge homeowners to conserve.

Sound familiar? It resembles the droughts that parched Clayton and Henry counties and many parts of the South for years.

But this summer, the word drought is not in any of the forecasts for Clayton and Henry counties where rains have drenched the area. Bad weather has brought damage to houses and structures like the Atlanta Motor Speedway, downed power lines and tree limbs and brought some flooding. But on the positive side, it has also brought plenty of rain to fill the lakes and rivers.

So far this year, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport has reported 39.52 inches of rain. And the above normal rainfall has shown itself in topped reservoirs through Clayton and Henry counties.

"Clayton county can produce 42 million gallons water per day," said Wade Brannan, general manager for the Clayton County Water Authority. He said the county uses about 29 million gallons of water per day from county reservoirs and the Flint River nearby. "We have 145 days of reserve."

Two years ago, the Board of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) urged Georgia residents to conserve water in lieu of an earlier drought. In particular, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), the Pollution Prevention Assistance Division (P2AD) and the State Water Conservation coordinator proposed year-round conservation and announced restrictions on outdoor water use that are still in effect.

"What we've learned is that in a state like Georgia we need to conserve water," said Kevin Chambers, referring to the steady population growth in the state. Chambers is communications director for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

He emphasized the State Drought Management Plan, a plan designed to minimize the potential effect of drought, while considering certain measures to take during various stages of drought. It includes schedules for outdoor water use.

"During the drought period, we never ran short of reserves," said Brannan. "We had less water in reserve, but an adequate amount. We had plenty to operate our system in a safe condition. And we were able to do that with the cooperation of our customers to conserve water and maintain safe levels."

"People are more educated now, and use water more wisely because of the drought we went through a couple of years ago."

Susan Zimmer-Dauphinee, program manager of the ambient monitoring program, said that people should be concerned about air pollutants during dry, stagnant weather.

"We've been under a stagnate high pressure system," Zimmer-Dauphinee, said, referring to the orange level air quality alert Friday. "When there is lots of sun light and not much wind, air pollutants stay in one area. But when we have storms--severe or not--the heavy rain could wash some pollutants out of the air."

"When it rains, people make the comment that they're getting tired of their grass, because it's growing so fast," said Roderick Burch, finance director for Henry County Water and Sewage Authority handling customer service.

"It's a little bit of a headache, but not much," said Josh Allin, production manager for Allin Landscaping based in Stockbridge. "During the rainy season, we raise our planting beds and spray for fungus.

"I can't plant around weather, but I watch the rain--this summer, more than normal because of the amount of fungus that has grown due to all the rainfall."

He said that Allin Landscaping has more than doubled its clientele recently due to the number of new residents and businesses in metro-Atlanta needing landscape installation and maintenance.

"Drought brings business up," Allin said. "More phone calls are generated during the dry season, than during the wet season."

"We've been having a lot of afternoon thunderstorms that have actually been beneficial to us," Burch said. "It has curtailed outdoor watering and the demand for water.

"We're actually doing pretty well in terms of expectations. The actual demands have been on target with what we were planning for this year."

The average daily water usage in Henry County last June was similar to its average daily water usage a year before. But extreme outliners in the peak day averages indicate a 15 percent difference between those peak days in June, 2004 and 2005, where June 2005 appears more conservative in water use.

Burch said that there are many variables to consider when comparing water usage from year to year, including population growth and weather conditions.

"We have three to four thousand more customers than we had last year. And if we have more rainfall this year than last, that's going to make a huge difference in water demand."

According to the Henry County Water and Sewer Authority, after a long fought court battle, it was given the clearance to proceed with the Tussahaw Reservoir and Water Treatment Facility. Tussahaw Reservoir will sit on a 1,466-acre site and will provide enough water to meet the current and future demands of the third-fastest growing county in the U.S. The reservoir will contain wetlands mitigation along with a possible fishery on the site.

The Tussahaw Water Treatment Facility will initially provide 13 million gallons of finished drinking water per day (MGD) to HCWSA customers, though the plant is designed to expand to 26 MGD if necessary in the future, according to the authority.

The new reservoir and adjoining water treatment plant will yield 23.6 million gallons of water per day to Henry County residents. This additional water should meet the needs of the county until the year 2027. Begun in October of 2003, the heart of the Tussahaw construction project is expected to take 24 to 30 months, depending on weather and other factors.

Farmers in the region are generally feeling good about their crops this year, said Tommy Irvin, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

"We've come out in pretty good shape this year," Irvin said. "And everybody's upbeat. We were very concerned about the hurricanes earlier this summer, but the circus has moved out farther west.

"Our crops matured as much as two weeks later than normal." he said. "We got kind of a slow start this summer and had a temporary loss, but we've moved forward steadily since.

"(Although) we've had one of the wettest Julys, we'll probably have our best corn crop in years. Because most of the rain this summer has been moderate.

"There's been a little bit of irrigation but far less than normal," Irvin said. He said less irrigation benefits both farmers and consumers in the long run, as irrigation is an expensive procedure. "This year, some farmers have irrigated the least in maybe the last two decades."

"The good news is, it is raining almost every day," Chambers said, lending advice in the matter of water conservation. "Follow the schedules, don't water more than you need to, and buy plants for your yard that are drought tolerant."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.