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Drought restrictions unchanged despite rainfall
Winemakers pleased with dry conditions
Cavender Creek Vineyards, pictured on Saturday, is just one of the North Georgia wineries benefitting from drought conditions in the state. Despite recent rain, the U.S. Drought Monitor still has much of White and Lumpkin counties in a severe drought.

After 18 inches of rain since March 1, restrictions on water use remain unchanged for Hall County and metro Atlanta.

North Hall is considered “abnormally dry” while the rest of the county is no longer in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

To the north, much of White and Lumpkin counties remain in severe drought, which is being cheered by some segments of those North Georgia communities.

The lifting of drought status in Hall County is thanks to the foot-and-a-half of rain the Gainesville area has seen since the beginning of March — a dramatic increase over 2016, when the area saw only 7.3 inches of rain over the same period.

Almost 26 inches of rain have fallen on Gainesville this year, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers in Mobile, Alabama, announced Thursday that improving drought conditions in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin, which includes Lake Lanier, have allowed the corps to return to normal operations along the basin.

Lake Lanier’s level this week reached more than 1,064 feet above sea level, within 7 feet of full — a good level for 2017, but a record low for the past five years.

Water needs from downstream should be met with the water flowing into the basin, according to Lisa Hunter, spokeswoman for the corps in Mobile.

“Releases from Lake Lanier will continue to be just for water-quality and water-supply requirements at this time,” Hunter said in an announcement.

The lake has risen most of those 18 inches of rain, but Georgia water managers are braced for the six-foot drain on the lake coming in the summer and fall.

So don’t expect any changes to water conservation restrictions for at least the next three months.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division still has the state at Level 2 Drought Response, which only allows watering of landscapes on Wednesday and Saturday for even-numbered addresses and Thursday and Sunday for odd-numbered addresses.

“It looks to me like we’re in a position where folks who are in drought level 2 are going to remain that way at least for the summer months,” said Bennett Weinstein, manager of EPD’s water supply program.

While the state’s drought restrictions likely aren’t letting up, they’re not going to get tighter, either. Weinstein said current conditions mean the metro Atlanta area is likely to see new restrictions this summer.

There’s at least one group that’s happy about North Georgia’s drought conditions: winemakers.

“The vines are healthy and happy and growing like crazy” after the rains of the past month, said Jeff Butter, assistant vineyard manager at Cavender Creek Vineyards. “… As far as the water requirements of the vines, we’re probably real close to having all we need. If it stopped raining in the next couple of weeks and didn’t rain until harvest, we would probably be OK.”

Vineyard operators say 2016 was one of their best years ever because of its hot, dry summer. Last year also started with a wet spring, but current rainfall is well past 2016 records.

If it continues to rain, wineries will begin struggling with fungus and mold brought on by moisture, especially the dew that hangs on the grapes in the pre-dawn.

“We have to treat the vines from a week to ten days all summer long,” Butter said. “The more rain we have the closer that interval gets. We can’t use the same chemicals week after week, so if we’re having to treat the vines more often then we’ve got to be a little more creative about what we apply and the amounts we apply.”

It’s not just the amount of rain, but the timing.

Heavy rain can cause thirsty vines to draw in as much water as they can, causing the grapes to burst and leading to the loss of whole crops, said Jeff Parker, Yonah Mountain Vineyards facilities manager.

Even normal amounts of rain in August or early September, when the grapes are close to harvesting, can dilute the all-important sugar in the berries that makes good wine.

“Just like anything else, you put water in something and it waters it down,” Parker said. “The more concentrated we can get the sugar in the berries, the better off you are.”

A bad year takes some time to show up on the shelf for a vineyard.

Depending on styles of wine and its maker, white wine can hit the bottle in about nine months. Reds can age for two to three years in their barrels before they’re bottled, according to Parker.

But if 2017 is a repeat of 2016, vineyards won’t have anything to worry about.

“Last year was an awesome year. I think it started out a little rainy in the spring last year too, but it dried up and it was really, really good for the grapes last year,” Parker said. “We’re kind of hoping for the similar, same type of thing to happen again this year.”

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