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Drought hangs on in Northeast Georgia

Rains have helped, but forecasters call for dry winter

POSTED: December 28, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The drought isn’t over by a long shot.

Welcome rains that brought Lake Lanier’s levels up by more than a foot in recent weeks are not enough to pull Northeast Georgia from a stubborn drought that has persisted for more than two years.

And while a new federal report said a soggy December helped bring much of Georgia and other Southern states out of the drought, it could be a long time yet before this part of the state regains normal soil moisture and stream levels, experts say.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor says Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas now are drought-free. But pockets of severe to extreme drought remain in Northeast Georgia and parts of South Carolina.

State climatologist David Stooksbury said the recent rains have upgraded the region’s status from exceptional drought — the worst — to merely extreme drought.

"At least we are going in the right direction," Stooksbury said. "It definitely doesn’t mean we’re out of the drought, nor is there much of an indication that we are starting to pull out of the drought."

Since the steady pattern of rain began Dec. 9, Lake Lanier has risen from 1,051 feet to 1,052.50, according to the National Weather Service. Full pool is 1,070 feet.

As of Saturday afternoon, the lake level was at 1,052.47 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site.

"If the rains do not continue and we go back to the pattern we had before last week, we can see lake levels drop again," Stooksbury said.

The bad news is that long-range forecasts call for a dry winter.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s most recent climate outlook says Georgia has an increased possibility of below-normal rainfall for January through March.

"That’s just not what we want to hear," Stooksbury said. He pointed to the heavy rainfall patterns brought on by the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay in August, which replenished the Chattahoochee River basin initially before levels began to fall off again.

The recent rains have not had much effect on watering and conservation restrictions imposed on utilities and governments. Kevin Chambers, a spokesman for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, said 55 of the state’s 159 counties remain in a Level Four drought. So far, 59 permit holders have been granted an easing of restrictions, which Chambers called "a very small percentage."

"The rain brought relief to some folks, but unfortunately the vast majority rely on Lake Lanier for water," Chambers said. "And Lanier is the problem area."

In the short term, an active pattern of replenishing rains is expected for the next 10 days or so, according to Mike Griesinger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City.

"There’s several chances for rain between now and the first of the year," Griesinger said Saturday, when just more than a half-inch fell in Gainesville during the day. "We’re in a fairly active pattern for the moment."

Today, however, is expected to be dry, windy and cold, with temperatures falling into the low 20s or high teens overnight.

For folks who rely on water for their business, the drought has taken a historic toll.

"We’ve seen this before, but not quite to this magnitude," said Shirley Odom, a customer service representative at Syfan Landscape Center.

While Odom says "I don’t think we’re out of the drought by any means," she’s hopeful the rains will keep coming.

"We’ve started off good for November and December, and, hopefully, we’re going to break that pattern and things will start picking back up," she said. "When it rains, people are happy."



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