Georgia still under 'exceptional drought'

Below-average rainfall and high temps lead drought into third year

hduncan@macon.comOctober 3, 2012 

Georgia is heading into its third year of drought, with Middle Georgia continuing to be the hardest hit area of the state. About a dozen Middle Georgia counties remain in “exceptional drought,” the most serious category, said state climatologist Bill Murphey. The region is currently the hardest hit by drought outside the Midwest.

Seventeen percent of the state is experiencing an exceptional drought, including all or part of Bibb, Houston, Twiggs, Peach, Jones, Crawford, Jasper, Wilkinson, Baldwin, Putnam and Dooly counties, Murphey said.

Other Middle Georgia counties are generally in extreme drought, the second-highest level of severity. The exception is counties to the south and east of Macon, such as Laurens and Bleckley, which are almost back to normal, Murphey said.

For Macon, the last two years tied for the driest on record, Murphey said.

Macon’s rainfall, at about 26 inches for the year, remains 9.7 inches below normal. The rainfall deficit over two years -- since Oct. 2, 2010 -- is 26.6 inches, he said.

The portion of Georgia suffering some level of drought has shrunk from 86 percent to 63 percent over the last three months, Murphey said. Although fewer counties are now affected, the drought remains intense in its holdout areas, especially in the Flint River basin, he said.

This week a weather system brought about an inch of rain to the Macon area, which helped stream flows at least temporarily. The Ocmulgee River regained its normal flow after being “much below normal,” he said, but the gains are unlikely to remain long after the rain is absorbed, Murphey said.

The drought has not affected Macon’s water supply. Mark Wyzalek, Macon Water Authority environmental compliance director, said the reservoir that supplies Macon is 75 percent full. The authority is still able to draw 27.8 million gallons a day from the Ocmulgee River to replace water removed from the reservoir. Customer demand is running about 23.5 million gallons a day, he said.

Streams and rivers in southwest Georgia were at historic lows a week ago, and the Flint River remains much below normal near Montezuma and near Carsonville, Murphey said. The Oconee is much below normal in Laurens County.

Even after the rain, almost half of stream flow gauges are showing below-normal flows or worse, Murphey said. That’s still an improvement since early summer.

Paired with the dry weather were higher-than-normal temperatures for the second year in a row, Murphey said. A record-setting heat wave at the end of June helped drive up the average high temperature in Macon by three degrees above normal during the last year. As a result, the past 365 days tied for the second-warmest average high recorded: 78.5 degrees, Murphey said.

October and November are expected to follow their normal dry pattern, but the outlook for the winter might be more hopeful. The three-month forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration includes a better-than-average chance of rain across central and south Georgia in late November and December.

Previous droughts

This marks the fourth drought in Georgia since 2000.

During the last drought, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue famously prayed for rain and urged Atlantans to take shorter showers. That drought caused a significant drop in Lake Lanier, inflaming the argument among Georgia, Alabama and Florida over Atlanta’s use of the reservoir as a primary water source. Various courts made different rulings about Atlanta’s right to that water, at one point threatening the Capitol with losing its access to the reservoir.

This drought has not had as much affect on Lake Lanier, and the rainfall earlier this week was actually greatest in that part of the state, Murphey said.

Also, Georgia won a court dispute over Lanier’s water, reducing the urgency of finding other water sources.

Kevin Chambers, communications director for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said that during the last drought, reporters around the world were writing stories about the possibility that Atlanta might go dry.

Murphey said that drought generally affected more of the state. At its peak in December 2007, for example, almost half the state was in exceptional drought. Murphey noted that each drought is different, with some covering more area, some being smaller but more intense, and each having various effects for water supply or farming depending on the time of year rains occur.

The current drought has also received less attention because the state is regulating water use during droughts differently now, Georgia officials say.

During the last drought, a state panel had to declare drought levels in various parts of the state, with each level being accompanied by different water use restrictions.

The Georgia Water Stewardship Act of 2010 included permanent restrictions banning outdoor watering between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Local governments that want to enact tougher limits can petition the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to allow them, Chambers said. Six water providers have done so, with the closest being Manchester, Americus and the authority that operates the Bear Creek Reservoir in the Upper Oconee River watershed.

“In 2006, we were issuing blanket rules for different parts of the state that may not have been necessary everywhere,” Chambers said. Since that changed, Chambers said, state regulators have found local water providers have been doing a good job managing their water themselves.

If a water provider did not take steps to conserve a dwindling water supply, Chambers said, the EPD director could still declare an emergency and impose tougher restrictions.

The Los Angeles Times recently wrote an article spotlighting Gov. Nathan Deal’s relative silence about the current drought, attributing it to an effort to not to chase away business growth and development.

But Brian Robinson, Deal’s deputy chief of staff for communications, said Deal has not talked much about the current drought because Georgia was better prepared for it this time.

“The difference is Georgia took dramatic steps to prepare for this in recent years,” said. “We have stringent regulations in place that weren’t there before.”

He added that Deal has talked repeatedly about the need to develop new reservoirs.

“Gov. Deal has talked about water all the time,” Robinson said. “His first speech to legislators before he was even sworn in was about the need to increase Georgia’s long-term water supply.”

Robinson noted that under Deal, the state has implemented a $300 million grant program to help local water systems develop their water supplies.

The first awards from this program were announced in August, to some criticism from the Georgia River Network and others, because neither of the two direct grants included expand capacity for local water systems with a shortfall. Deal took heat from the media for one of the projects, a $4.5 million grant to rehabilitate a well and create capacity for a water park at a multi-million dollar resort developed by some of Deal’s campaign contributors.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4255.

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