A parched Southeast urges self-restraint

Times Staff Writer

From the shriveled cotton fields of northern Alabama to the browned lawns of suburban Atlanta, the Southeast is wilting under one of the most severe droughts in its history.

In Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida, there has been less rain than at any time since records began in 1894. Farmers, who face the brunt of the drought, are harvesting parched fields of damaged corn, peanuts, corn and soybeans. Cattle producers are selling their stock because they cannot afford to pay for feed. Tobacco hanging in barns is not curing because it is too dry.

As the drought intensifies, the water shortage is hitting urban and suburban residents too.

Hydropower plants are raising rates, watering bans are being imposed, and almost everyone in this rapidly developing region is being called on to exercise self-restraint.


Even the seemingly sacrosanct is not exempt: Georgia Tech’s groundskeepers may not water their football field with city water. Homeowners cannot water their prized St. Augustine lawns. And Stone Mountain Park has stopped creating artificial snow for its 32,000-square-foot Coca-Cola Snow Mountain in time for Christmas. The Atlanta theme park’s snow-making equipment uses 38 gallons of water a minute.

With lakes drying to record lows -- and scientists predicting a particularly warm, dry winter -- many officials across the region are wondering whether they will be able to supply residents with enough drinking water.

In Monteagle, Tenn., the town’s water is just days from running out, and officials are exploring mobile filtration and treatment units to produce drinking water.

In Alexander City, Ala., water is so low in Lake Martin, the town’s only water supply, that pumps are shutting down and engineers are floating a barge to install pumps deeper into the Tallapoosa River.

“This is unheard of,” said Eugene Mahan, superintendent of water treatment for the system in Alexander City. “Now we’re really in a hustle; we’re really in a rush to pump water. We just don’t know low this lake is going to go.”

In Atlanta, a lake that provides most of the water to more than 5 million metropolitan residents is 12 feet below full pool, and it’s falling 5 feet a month. Tensions are running high.

A total ban on outdoor watering has been in effect across northern Georgia for more than a week. Such a ban is unprecedented in Georgia, but officials fear more cuts will be needed. At a drought summit in Atlanta on Tuesday, officials said the outdoor watering ban could be in effect until the summer. In an attempt to offset the problem, Gov. Sonny Perdue declared October a “shorter-shower month.”

Hot, dry weather has been felt across the country. There is also an extreme drought in Southern California as well as parts of Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Montana, but the one in the Southeast is exceptional. Large swaths of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas are rated D4, the National Drought Mitigation Center’s highest level of drought intensity.


“It is truly a historic drought, one of the worst in 100 years,” said Douglas LeComte, a senior meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Already, the cost to the Southeast’s economy is expected to be billions of dollars, said Warren P. Kriesel, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Georgia. That loss, he said, will be mitigated somewhat by federal crop insurance payments.

In Lynchburg, Tenn., the Jack Daniel’s distillery has warned it may have to reduce or suspend production because the spring it relies on for its iron-free water is so low. In North Carolina, officials with the Department of Agriculture worry that the drought will persuade some of the state’s struggling farmers to sell their land to developers or real estate agents.

In Georgia, where the drought is concentrated in the northern and most developed part of the state, counties are encouraging neighbors to report one another for water-use infractions and are employing water-meter monitors to patrol communities for repeat violators.


Some homeowners who can no longer water their lawns, wash cars or pressure-wash decks are finding ways to get around the ban -- making use of an exception to the law that allows watering for up to 30 days after professional installation of landscaping. Others are putting plants in containers, watering them indoors and then placing them back outside.

Many more people are adapting, though, by investing in rain barrels; choosing more hardy, drought-tolerant plants; saving bath water; or collecting rain water. Some are simply not growing anything.

Jack Brownfield, 56, an Atlanta resident looking at crimson petunias at a Home Depot nursery, said he intended to plant them in containers around his porch. This year, he said, he planted a quarter of what he used to plant. Instead of bright annuals such as petunias and coral bells, he relied on old perennials such as bear claws and hostas.

“I’ve already adapted,” he said. “If I have one guilty thing, it’s too many showers.”


Those who have not adopted a new prudence have met public finger-pointing.

On Wednesday, there was an outcry after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a photo of a man in short sleeves and sunglasses throwing a snowball on a lush lawn in Stone Mountain Park. Organizers of the Coca-Cola Snow Mountain had already sold tickets for their “winter wonderland,” but they soon canceled the event.

Two days later, the newspaper reported that Georgia Tech had used city water illegally to irrigate its football field for almost a week; the athletic department is now scrambling to get around the ban on outdoor watering. The University of Georgia, meanwhile, has already begun to draw water from its own retention ponds.

Even that, however, is not acceptable for some.


“Is this really an efficient, priority use?” asked Shana Udvardy, water program manager at the Georgia Conservancy. “I don’t believe so. Everyone needed to remember we’re all pulling on the same river basin.”

With droughts expected to continue across the country, some complain that golf courses and landscape companies should not be exempt from outdoor water bans. Others believe that officials should do more to restrict new residential and commercial developments that will hook up to what they say are already limited resources.

Though some attribute the drought in the Southeast, particularly metropolitan Atlanta, to the strains of a rapidly growing population, others argue that it is a natural phenomenon and that it is possible to avert crisis with better management.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” said Carol Couch, director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.


She said it was not a problem of too much growth, but rather extremely low rainfall -- and the shortage could be addressed with additional reservoirs and an emphasis on more efficient use of water.

“We have not consumed our way into drought.”