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EPD declares drought over
State lifts some water restrictions
Daniel Marmolejo waters plants Wednesday at Syfan Landscape Center. Water restrictions have been eased because the drought has been declared over. - photo by Tom Reed

Georgia residents from the hills to the sand dunes can water their landscapes at any time of day now that state officials have declared the state’s two-year drought has ended.

Following an abnormally wet spring, the state Environmental Protection Division’s Director Carol Couch on Wednesday lifted a ban on outdoor water use that had been in place for much of North Georgia since fall 2007.

"This drought has ended," Couch said at a meeting of the state drought response committee on Wednesday. "Our water supplies are flush. Our rivers and streams have rebounded."

The state’s new regulations on outdoor watering, called the non-drought schedule, do not mandate what time of day residents can water their landscapes, only the day.

But just because they can water at any time of day does not mean they should, says Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director for the Metro Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association.

"I hope that people will realize you shouldn’t go out and water in the daytime hours," Woodworth said.

Although there is no limit on time, the state’s regulations come with a suggestion that residents not water their landscapes between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to be water efficient.

"My decision to ease outdoor watering restrictions should not be seen as a license to waste water, but as a vote of confidence in Georgians’ ability to conserve and use water efficiently," Couch said.

Under a non-drought water schedule, outdoor water use is allowed three days a week on assigned days using odd- and even-numbered addresses. Odd-numbered addresses can water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Even-numbered and unnumbered addresses are allowed to water on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The move to the non-drought schedule was a pleasant surprise to representatives of the landscape industry and Gainesville’s Public Utilities Department — both of which have suffered financially since the state’s watering restrictions began more than two years ago.

Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville’s Public Utilities Department, said that with the recent rains and rising levels of Lake Lanier he expected Couch to announce a change in the state’s drought response level, but not a move to a non-drought schedule.

"I thought what (Couch) would do is go back to the Level 2 (drought response level) when we still had the time restrictions in place," Randall said.

Watering restrictions and the economic downturn have given the department’s revenues a hard-hitting, one-two punch, knocking down the department’s revenues by about $8.6 million since fiscal year 2007.

And while lifting the ban does not directly improve the city’s economic situation, "selling some water will help" the department’s struggling finances, Randall said.

The landscape industry also has the economy to deal with, but Beth Stafford, a horticulturist at Syfan’s Landscape Center in Gainesville, said she was delighted to hear of the return to a non-drought status.

The drought changed the way Syfan’s does business, Stafford said. The Thompson Bridge Road business now makes a point to stock native plants that can tolerate dry conditions, she said.

Heavy rainfall in recent months has helped Georgia and the rest of the Southeast emerge from the worst drought categories. The state’s climatologist said Wednesday that Georgia has seen the second-wettest spring in 115 years.

As the rains returned, so have the customers who went missing when the state imposed an outdoor watering ban in 2007, Stafford said.

"Nobody was buying any plants at all," said Stafford. "The watering restrictions have hurt us."

Couch’s move directly to the Level 4 drought response from the Level 2 in fall 2007, "totally ruined the landscape industry economically," Woodworth said.

"It really was very devastating," Woodworth said.

The horticulturist said she will wait to see if the lifted restrictions will further improve the landscape center’s business. Randall said the Public Utilities Department does not expect its revenues to return to what they were in 2007 — $57.3 million — any time soon even though restrictions on water use have been lifted.

"I think people have really changed their habits," Randall said.

Randall projects that customers’ water use will return to normal, but slowly over a four- or five-year period, he said.

"People do have a tendency to start using water again," Randall said. "But it will take them much longer than you would think."

While state officials may be closing the book on the drought, Woodworth said she hopes that Georgia’s lawmakers will take what they have learned from it and seek balance next time they revise the state’s drought response plan.

She said she thinks the lessons learned from the drought could help the Georgia lead the rest of the country in efficient water management.

"I think we’re really going down a good path right now," Woodworth said.

"Good will come out of it," Woodworth said. "It was just that it was tough getting here."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.