The state of Georgia on Tuesday ordered water permit holders in 61 North Georgia counties to reduce their water withdrawals by 10 percent.
The directive, ordered by Gov. Sonny Perdue, applies to surface water and groundwater withdrawal permits in the region, which extends from Columbus to just north of Augusta.
Permit holders will be required to reduce water withdrawals by 10 percent compared to the permit holder’s water usage of the last winter season (beginning of December 2006 through end of March 2007). The new restrictions will become effective once the permit holders are notified in writing.
The permit holders are primarily municipal water systems, such as the city of Gainesville, which provides most of the public water in Hall County.
Almost one-third of the Southeast is covered by an "exceptional" drought — the worst drought category.
The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is smack in the middle of the affected region, which includes most of Tennessee, Alabama and the northern half of Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.
Perdue said the state is continuing to evaluate the drought response and could call for more restrictions.
"I encourage all Georgians to make their dry lawns and dirty cars a badge of honor," Perdue said. "By making individual conservation efforts, along with reasonable solutions from our federal government, we can collectively help to ensure that our water supply is sufficient."
With a dry winter in the forecast and less than three months of stored water left in Lake Lanier, the north Georgia reservoir that supplies water to about 3 million residents, environmental officials have already ordered restrictions throughout the state.
Georgia officials in September banned virtually all outdoor watering in the northern part of the state, and the governor declared a disaster in more than half of Georgia's 159 counties.
The state has also appealed to the federal government for help.
The governor asked President Bush on Saturday to order less water be released from federal reservoirs in Georgia, and the state filed a lawsuit demanding the Army Corps of Engineers reduce the millions of gallons of water sent downstream to Florida and Alabama.
The drought has heightened tensions among the three states, which already disagree on how to manage the region's limited water supply. Florida has complained the state is not sending enough water downstream to protect federally threatened mussels, and Alabama has urged the Corps to release more water to help his state cope with the dry conditions.
The tighter restrictions will be in place on November 1, and the state Environmental Protection Division will impose fines on those who flout the law.
Environmentalists welcomed the water restrictions, but questioned why the cuts weren't ordered earlier.
"This seems like a more proactive step than trying to blame a bunch of mussels for a drought," said Jennette Gayer, a policy advocate with Environment Georgia.
"But if we had really been serious about implementing conservation methods a couple of years ago or even a couple of years ago, we would have been able to avoid this pain."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.