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Georgia moves from exceptional to extreme drought
Recent rains help, but state's still in danger
The recent rains have raised the water level of Lake Lanier, making several boat ramps usable again. This ramp at Van Pugh North Park was extended with help from private citizens.

Georgia is no longer in an exceptional drought. It’s now in an extreme drought.

For the first time since last July, the state has emerged from the most severe condition given by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"If this were a hospital patient, this would be like going from grave to critical," said state climatologist David Stooksbury.

Back-to-back weeks of 1 to 3 inches of rain across northern Georgia, the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee and the western Carolinas helped improve the drought situation.

The only Southeastern area remaining in the D4, or exceptional drought, condition is a small area of Northeast Alabama and South Central Tennessee.

But Stooksbury maintains the end of the most severe drought condition is not cause for celebration.

"We did expect to see some improvement during the winter," Stooksbury said. "But that’s kind of relative. If you look at soil moisture across North Georgia, it is still abnormally dry for this time of year."

Stooksbury said that 80 years out of 100, soils would be wetter in late March than they currently are.

He said soil moisture would continue to decrease as warmer temperatures settle in and growing plants begin needing more water.

"Plants have broken dormancy and are putting out new leaves and growth and will start using a tremendous amount of moisture," he said.

Another measure of the drought conditions is the inflows into Lake Lanier from the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers.

The Chattahoochee is flowing into Lanier at a rate of 655 cubic feet per second. The normal flow at this time of year would be 988 cfs, meaning the inflow is 66 percent of normal.

From the Chestatee the inflow is 312 cubic feet per second, against a normal flow of 464 cfs or about 67 percent of normal.

"Inflows are falling," Stooksbury said.

The University of Georgia’s weather station near the Olympic rowing venue has received 14.27 inches of rain in 2008. Normal would be 15.28 inches.

"March has been wet and for Hall County, the storms have brought additional rainfall," he said.

Through Monday, Hall County received 5.8 inches in March, which is above the normal March rainfall of 4.65 inches.

The rainfall has been reflected in the continued rise in the level of Lake Lanier at Buford Dam.

Tuesday morning, the lake was at 1,056.28 feet above mean sea level. The lake has risen nearly 3 feet since the first of March.

The steadily increasing level of the lake has meant additional boat ramps on Lake Lanier have become usable. A number of ramps have opened over the past month, said Michael Lapina, chief park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said the corps opens boat ramps at its parks when the water reaches a depth of 3 feet or more at the end of the boat ramp.

As of Tuesday afternoon, ramps were open at the following parks, according to the corps Web site: East Bank, Shoal Creek Day Use, Big Creek, Van Pugh North, Balus Creek, Little River, Little Hall, Vann’s Tavern and Lower Pool.

Lapina said ramps at three parks — Van Pugh North, Balus Creek and East Bank — have been opened at a lower water level than previously would have been possible if not for community efforts to extend them. He said groups of fishermen, lake guides and bait shops went together to purchase concrete needed to make those ramps longer and the corps did the work. The work was done before the level of the lake started rising again after reaching its low point in December, Lapina said.

Ramps also are open at Clarks Bridge and Charleston parks, thanks to private efforts to extend those boat ramps as well.

Lapina said additional boat ramps could become usable if it continues to rain and the lake level keeps going up.

The news remains good for the other reservoirs on the Chattahoochee.

West Point Lake was at 633.07 on Tuesday, less than 2 feet from full pool. Lake Walter F. George was at 189.41, just shy of its full pool of 190 feet above sea level.

Stooksbury said that if the state was not already in a drought, little thought would be given to the rainfall departures from normal.

"But we were already in bad shape going into the winter and we had to make up and get better rains than we received," Stooksbury said, adding that the La Nina pattern has been mostly as predicted, with the exception of the storm related rains.

"We just haven’t received the recharge that we needed," Stooksbury said. "In Gainesville, it’s easy for you to see. You just have to go out and look at the lake."

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