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State removes drought-level watering restrictions

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

After months of significant rainfall and improved water levels throughout Georgia, the state has removed the stringent, outdoor watering restrictions put in place to guide residents through a severe, prolonged drought.

On Wednesday, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced that the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) had issued a non-drought schedule for outdoor water use for the first time since June 2006.

The change is the first since May 2008, which occurred while 55 north Georgia counties were under a Level IV drought response, which restricted all outdoor watering, with few exceptions. Last summer, Clayton and Henry counties successfully petitioned the EPD for Level IVc restrictions, which allowed residents to water outdoors three days a week, between midnight and 10 a.m., based on whether their address was an odd or even number.

Under the new, non-drought schedule, all Georgians living at odd-numbered addresses will be allowed to water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and those living at even-numbered addresses can water on Mondays, Wednesday and Saturdays, with no restrictions on time.

Kevin Chambers, director of communication for the Georgia EPD, said outdoor water use will be restricted on Fridays and highly discouraged during the hours of 10 a.m., and 4 p.m. Chambers said that while restrictions have been relaxed, Georgians need to continue to conserve.

"It's still a dry Friday," Chambers said. "The logic behind that is to prepare water systems for the expected increase of water use over the weekend. They have the freedom now to wash their car in their driveway, but they shouldn't let the hose run and the water go down the drain."

Officials with the Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority said that while Henry water supplies were largely unaffected by the drought, the experience has encouraged many local water authorities to go to greater lengths to educate consumers, and plan ahead.

"As far as water supply, we are in great shape going into the summer," said Roderick Burch, spokesman for the Henry water authority. "Even though we're not in a drought condition, sooner or later, we'll be in that state again. There's a real effort on the state's part to inspire water conservation among the state's water users."

"The magnitude of the drought really made us all stop and think about how we use water," the EPD's Chambers said. "It was obvious. You drive over a bridge and see a dried-up lake and that image stays with you. One day, [drought] will return. We hope we will be ready for it , with behaviors in place that will help us manage our resources."

Burch noted that the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, created in 2001 to manage water polices in 15 counties, updated its Water Supply and Water Conservation, Long-term Wastewater, and Watershed management plans in May, and will publish the updates this summer. The plans, according to the district's web site, will provide an aggressive, water-conservation and public-education program to spur "the continued use of existing reservoirs, the completion of five new reservoirs in process, and the expansion of 25 existing treatment facilities, with one new facility."

Suzanne Brown, public information officer for the Clayton County Water Authority, said that from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the water authority built five reservoirs in anticipation of drought. She said counties that planned ahead are currently reaping the benefits.

"We don't have a large water supply naturally," Brown said. "It definitely helped that years ago, board members and staff here felt like it was important to build those reservoirs, so we could have an adequate water supply. At the height of the drought, our supplies only fell to 78 percent. I think the fact that we did well throughout that is a testimony to the fact that creating a master plan and planning ahead really pays off."

Brown said conservation efforts on the part of Clayton residents has also contributed to the county's ability to maintain adequate water levels. "We can produce up to 42 million gallons [of water] a day," she said. "We average at 24.5 million gallons of water usage per day. A few summers ago, our average water usage would be about 28-30 million gallons a day. We do think the customers have done a good job of learning better practices."

Assistant State Climatologist Pam Knox said that from a meteorological standpoint, the drought in Georgia has been over for several months. However, she said Georgians will need to make conservation a way of life. "Statistically speaking, once you come out of a drought, you don't go right back into it," Knox said. "There is no likelihood that we are going right back into drought conditions, but Mother Nature always has a way of surprising us. We're going into the tropical season right now. In 2007 and 2008, most of those storms went to the west. If we have a year like we did when they all go to Texas, then we will be in a drought again."