By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Citing the present drought and forecasts of a dry winter, state officials Friday banned outdoor water use across the northern third of Georgia.
The ban, effective immediately, prohibits lawn sprinkling and other forms of recreational water use, except for newly installed landscaping and personal food gardens.
It exempts a longer list of commercial water users, including professional landscapers, retail garden centers and car washes.
"It is not a light matter to go to a Level Four," said Carol Couch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, referring to the level of drought declaration that triggers an outdoor watering ban.
"We're talking about businesses. We're talking about jobs. ... [But] drinking water, public health and sanitation have to be the highest priority."
Couch declared the Level Four drought following a meeting of the State Drought Response Committee, a panel of federal, state and regional officials and representatives of local governments.
The same panel met last April and, later that day, the EPD declared a Level Two drought statewide, limiting lawn sprinkling to three days a week.
But as the year-old drought worsened during the summer, eight counties imposed total bans on outdoor water use, including Cobb, Clarke, Barrow and Jackson counties.
Offending homeowners have been fined up to $500 for multiple violations.
On Friday, Couch laid the groundwork for extending the ban to more counties by inviting two forecasters to make presentations to the drought committee.
State Climatologist David Stooksbury said rainfall has been significantly below normal in most of Georgia for the past year.
Consequently, soil moisture and stream flows have been reduced substantially, and reservoirs are low. "All the indices are pointing in the same direction," he said.
Stooksbury said forecasters are predicting a "La Nina" winter, which would mean above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation for most of Georgia. If that happens, there likely wouldn't be enough rain to replenish the reservoirs.
Wei Zeng, manager of the EPD's Hydrology Unit, said that Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta's primary water supply, was down to 1,059 feet above sea level on Thursday and is projected to drop to as low as 1,039 feet by the end of the year.
Couch said a drop of only six more feet from the current level would expose the city of Cumming's water intake.
She said that if Lanier falls as low as expected later in the year, water quality - including taste and odor problems - could become an issue for all water systems that withdraw from the lake.
"This is a drought that is unprecedented," Couch said. "We really haven't seen this pattern before."
The EPD order imposes a total ban on outdoor use of water in 61 counties north of a line that runs from Lincoln County on the South Carolina border southwest to Columbus.
Macon, Augusta and the counties south of the line will remain under Level Two, which allows homeowners to water their lawns three days a week, on an odd-even basis.
Couch said much of the southern two-thirds of the state also has suffered the same dry conditions. But she said she decided not to impose tougher restrictions on those counties because they rely primarily on groundwater, which has been less vulnerable to the drought than surface waters.
Couch warned that limiting the water ban to northern Georgia might not be enough to achieve the reductions in demand needed to protect drinking water supplies.
She said the EPD in the coming months could cancel some of the exemptions that currently apply to the ban. "We may need to be convening more frequently," she told drought committee members.
Julie Mayfield, vice president of the Georgia Conservancy and a member of the panel, questioned the decision to impose different levels of water-use restrictions in northern and southern Georgia.
"In the spirit of everybody doing more than they're doing now ... does it make sense to have the state split?" she asked.
Couch said she would like everyone to conserve water, no matter where they live.
"I would hope every citizen of Georgia assumes responsibility well beyond what might be required in the choices they make every day," she said.
AT A GLANCE
Here are some of the major exemptions to the ban on outdoor water use imposed by the state Friday in the northern third of Georgia:
· New landscaping, for up to 30 days following installation
· Personal food gardens
· Golf courses
· Fruit, vegetable and ornamental growers
· Retail garden centers
· Construction sites
· Commercial car washes
· Producers of food and fiber
Source: Georgia Environmental Protection Division