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Old water habits return with the rains

POSTED: February 14, 2008 5:03 a.m.

North Georgians may be forgetting about conservation after seeing a little rain recently, as a few area utilities report water usage went up in January.

Water czars in Gainesville, Winder and Dawsonville who have been scrutinizing water use since Gov. Sonny Perdue demanded a 10 percent reduction last fall all have reported seeing slight increases in water use since December.

In December, Gainesville cut its water use to an average of 15.26 million gallons per day. That's about 2 million gallons a day less than in December 2006. Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville's Public Utilities Department, has maintained that customers have been the ones responsible for the reduction.

But in January, Gainesville's consumption rose by more than half a million gallons per day, he said.
Randall contends that most of the increase in water use is due to the difference between the two months. In December, schools, businesses and industries close for days and weeks at a time because of holidays.

"I think that December is really just an odd month," he said. "Naturally every year (December's use is) lower, because of those sorts of things." Randall says January's use is higher, because all of the local businesses and schools are open.

Yet one local sociologist says people could be becoming complacent with the water situation as they see rain falling and media attention shifting from the drought to the presidential race.

John O'Sullivan, a professor of social sciences at Gainesville State College in Oakwood, says people have a tendency to only act on a problem in an emergency. He explained many may have become complacent as they believe the threat to the water supply is no longer imminent.

"Maintaining a heightened state of care is taxing and difficult," O'Sullivan wrote in an e-mail. "Upon first hearing of danger, people may be able to change their behavior, but then as people become accustomed to the idea of the threat, they become complacent.

"This is frequently the case when the threat is slow and gradual, as with a drought."

Randall admits there may be some complacency -- the department had to cite some watering ban violators in January, which he said has not happened in awhile -- but contends not all of the increase can be attributed to complacency.

Brooke Anderson, general manager of Etowah Water and Sewer Authority, said Etowah has been working to reduce its water usage for the past three years. The authority serves Dawson County.

"We haven't been doing this just since November," Anderson said. "We've been doing it for a while."
Anderson said that Etowah's main efforts have been aimed at informing the public of the state's water restrictions and the importance of conservation. Etowah Water and Sewer Authority, which draws its water from the Coosa River Basin, has held two seminars in conjunction with the local county extension service on drought-tolerant landscapes.

Besides efforts to increase awareness, Etowah took the Level Four drought response a few steps further. Etowah does not allow overseeding of lawns as an exemption to watering restrictions.

Etowah has also required Dawson County's two commercial car washes to install a recycling system. Anderson said it only took the car washes 30 days to comply.

Despite the measures, Etowah still has struggled with meeting the mandated 10 percent reduction. In December, the utility missed the mandated mark by 3 percent, using 1.10 million gallons of water per day.

Anderson attributed the missed mark to the unpredictability of its customer base. "We're not all equal," Anderson said. "Most of our flow goes to commercial retail customers ... that's more difficult to control."

North Georgia Premium Outlets on Ga. 400 in Dawsonville is one of the authority's biggest customers.
In January, Etowah's water use was higher than in December. Right now, Etowah water users are using 1.17 million gallons per day. The goal was 1.07 million gallons per day.

"When we've had a couple of warm days in January, customer demand has shot up significantly,"

Anderson said. "The media attention has died down, and we have had some rain. It's easier to forget (about the drought) when it rained three days ago or a day ago."

Last fall, Winder's water situation was much more dire than either Dawsonville or Gainesville, and customers did their part to conserve. Roger Wilhelm, utility programs director for the city of Winder, said the city started preparing for the worst back in June when Mulberry River, the city's primary water source, started getting lower and the drought began to look long-term.

Winder stepped ahead of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, moving to a Level Three drought response in June and to a Level Four nearly two months before EPD Director Carol Couch declared the response for all of Northeast Georgia.

In September, the Mulberry River and Bear Creek Reservoir in the Oconee Basin were at such low levels that the city withdrew water from Fort Yargo Lake.

Now Winder, which supplies about 65 percent of Barrow County's water, has a policy of addressing reported leaks within 24 hours, and requires businesses that depend on outdoor water use to obtain a permit for each job. The city does not have a daily limit on commercial outdoor water users, but uses the permits to keep up with who should be using water outside and who should not.

Winder's water situation is in better shape than it was in the fall, Wilhelm said. The Winder utility has not needed the Fort Yargo Lake resource since mid-November, and Wilhelm says all of the city's water sources have been at full pool since December.

For now, Winder's situation is no longer dire, and people are starting to return to their old habits, Wilhelm said.

In December, Winder cut more than the mandated 10 percent reduction and used an average of 3.82 million gallons per day. But Wilhelm said he has noticed that Winder's water use is slowly rising.

"It's amazing how quick it gets off people's minds," Wilhelm said. "We have replenished our supplies, but we're a long way away from getting out of a Level Four drought."

Wilhelm suspects it will be harder to curtail water usage in the spring.

Anderson, like Wilhelm, said it will be increasingly difficult to maintain the 10 percent reduction through the spring. "Even with the strictest enforcement, it's going to be extremely challenging," Anderson said.



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