And keep 'em off 24/7: New ban spares only certain businesses and food gardens, and may soon get tighter still.

By Matt Kempner
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/29/07

Even as the state mandated the toughest outdoor watering restrictions ever for North Georgia on Friday, officials are scrambling to determine what other steps they might take if the measures aren't enough to withstand the brutal drought.

Carol Couch, the director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, ordered an immediate ban on most outdoor watering in the northern third of the state. It's the most severe step laid out in the state's drought response plans. But Couch said, "My calculation is it may be inadequate."

The drought "has reached historical proportions," she said.

She suggested that she will consider using emergency powers to scale back outdoor watering by certain commercial businesses exempted from the latest restrictions. The exemptions allow some watering by professional landscapers, sod farms, food producers and others.

But Couch said she may take steps that go even further if the drought deepens.

"If we have the worst-case scenario unfolding as probably would be suggested, we may need to consider other alternatives," she said after a meeting of the state's Drought Response Committee.

Among the questions she'll face is how much water can be saved by further restrictions and how much economic pain the limits would inflict.

"When your tap has nothing coming out of it is not the time we need to be figuring out what the next step is," she said.

Couch said she is "reaching out" to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reduce water releases from corps-run lakes such as Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta's main source of drinking water along with the Chattahoochee River. The corps, which releases the water for downstream uses, has already said it will curtail releases from Lake Allatoona, another important local water source.

Much of the state is parched, and northern Georgia is in what officials consider an "exceptional drought," the worst designation. Some parts of the state have had only half the precipitation that has usually fallen by this time of year. Soil moisture levels are lower than what would be expected in 99 of 100 years, state climatologist David Stooksbury said. Some streams are at record low flows, and lakes are quickly draining.

By the end of the year, Lanier may fall to by far its lowest level ever.

Typically, leaders count on wet winters to help refill depleted lakes relied on for drinking water. But Stooksbury said indications for the next few months point to warm dry conditions in much of North Georgia.

The conclusion, said Wei Zeng of the EPD's hydrological analysis unit: "We're in a dire situation."

Some communities, including an area covered by the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority, already had in place outdoor watering limits as strict as those the state just enacted. Several others have a variety of lesser restrictions, such as allowing outdoor watering only at certain times on certain days.

Local jurisdictions are free to put in place watering restrictions that are more stringent than those mandated by the state.

Couch said she hopes the state's new restrictions will cut water use another 10 percent to 15 percent in North Georgia. The fall isn't a time of year when a lot of landscaping is done, she said. Nonetheless, Georgia gardening experts often cite this as the best time to install a variety of plants.

Landscapers fear restrictions will hurt their business.

Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association, told Couch that if she considers further restrictions, she should "look at all the industries, not just professional landscapers."

And Julie Mayfield, the general counsel for the Georgia Conservancy, an environmental organization, said the state's drought plan relies almost solely on restrictions in North Georgia. The southern two-thirds of the state —- which mostly uses groundwater rather than lakes and rivers for its drinking water —- remain under limited watering restrictions.

The state plan "probably needs to be revised to include restrictions of commercial, industrial and possibly even agricultural uses," she said. "The burden of providing enough drinking water and protecting the environment should be more evenly on everyone."

Other than curbs on outdoor watering, residential water use is hard to regulate, she said. Many counties have billing rates that go up as customers use more water.


Q: What counties are covered by the ban?

A: The restrictions affect residents in North Georgia's 61 counties. In the metro area, those counties include: Bartow, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale. A few local jurisdictions, such as the Cobb-Marietta Water Authority, already were at that level.

Q: What do the tougher restrictions mean for me?

A: The ban calls for no outdoor watering. That means you can't water your lawn or wash the car in your driveway. But there are some exemptions.

Q: What are those exemptions?

A: Licensed landscapers can water new, professionally installed landscaping for 30 days, and you can still water personal food gardens. Businesses, such as commercial car washes, are also exempt.

Q: Why are we doing this?

A: In March, for instance, we had less than 1 1/2 inches of rain. The 30-year average is a little more than 5.

Q: Is there any relief in sight?

A: The region's reservoirs, such as Lake Lanier, normally recover as the winter rains arrive. But the forecast calls for a dry, mild winter, and that could spell more trouble.

Q: How will be it enforced? And what are the fines?

A: Local jurisdictions are free to put in place restrictions that are more stringent than the state's —- and those jurisdictions enforce the ban. It's possible to be fined more than once. Cobb has issued $500 fines.


Q: What can I do to keep my trees, shrubs or plants alive?

A: Try using water captured from other sources, such as the drip from your air conditioning system.

Q: If I'm planning to overseed or plant a new lawn, what should I do?

A: Some experts advise against planting unless you're allowed to water in the first 30 days. You can rent a "slit seeder" from a home improvement store and use that to sow seeds. It cuts into the soil about a half inch, drops the seed in and covers it with dirt. With a little bit of luck and a little bit of rain, most of those seeds may germinate over two or three weeks.

"The drought of 2007 has reached historic proportions, so it's critical that we take immediate action to ensure that Georgians have a sufficient supply of safe drinking water." —- Carol A. Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division

Counties in North Georgia are under a Level 4 drought response.  This level prohibits most types of outdoor water use, with exceptions for commercial uses.  However, local governments and water utilities may impose more stringent watering schedules.

Shaded county outline map of Georgia.
Darker Shade:  Drought response Level 4
Lighter Shade: Drought response Level 2

Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources