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More water is falling, but it isnt flowing
Recent rain keeps garden hoses off, but decreased use may lead to higher rates
The Riverside Water Treatment Plant's wall of 24-hour charts or gauges keeps track of the water being pumped from various sites around the city. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

While Gainesville's water use was expected to rise in March, the city's public utilities department reported that it actually decreased.

Some attribute it to the amount of rain. Others to conservation. Either way, the decreased water use -- and resulting drop in revenues for the city -- likely will translate into higher rates for consumers.

The Gainesville area has received nearly 12 inches of rain in the past two months, according to the National Weather Service. That makes this season what the weather service calls a "wetter than normal" spring.

While the rain was falling, apparently so was water use. Gainesville's public utilities department reports that its customers only used an average of 15.3 million gallons of water per day in March.

The reduction in water use is contrary to previous years, when water use generally spiked in the month of March. The director of Gainesville's utility says he is surprised.

For months, Kelly Randall has said he expected water use, and therefore his department's revenues, to go up in March.

Randall told the Gainesville City Council in February, when the outlook for revenue looked grim, that it was hard to project, because drought conditions and watering restrictions were subject to change.

As Randall made that statement to the council, Gov. Sonny Perdue had just announced an end to the all-out outdoor watering ban he had imposed on the state in late October. The change allows North Georgians to water with a garden hose for 25 minutes every other day.

As a result, Randall said he expected the department's revenues to improve, starting in March when people would begin watering their lawns. But as the month went on, that didn't happen.

"I did really expect (use) to go up a bit," Randall said. "I'm very surprised that it went down."

Randall continues to attribute the reduction in water use to conservation by customers. Some of the department's biggest customers, such as the poultry processing plants, are recycling and reusing water, and other big water users are reusing condensate water, Randall said.

"I think it's truly an indication that people have changed the way they are using water," Randall said.

He contends customers would continue to conserve even if all water restrictions were lifted tomorrow. But if water revenues continue to decline, the reward for conserving could be higher water rates. The department has already determined rates will have to rise, but isn't yet sure by how much.

Randall said waiting until the end of summer to determine the department's financial status -- and its customers water rates for 2009 -- is best for all involved.

"This thing is so volatile, and it changes so quickly that I think we'd really be remiss if we don't ... just continue to look at it ... with our latest and greatest numbers," he said.

The drought is indeed volatile, and though Randall was wrong in his estimation that water use would rise in March, he said the trend may not continue into the coming months.

"Obviously one or two months isn't necessarily going to indicate what's going to happen for the rest of the year," Randall said.

He is reluctant to make predictions, because these days, his department, and the rest of the region, is dealing with a situation it has never before encountered: a 100-year drought.

"We can make a guess, we can make our best estimate of what type of water volumes we think people will use this summer ... but really all of our historical data is kind of out the window, because we have very different conditions than what we've historically had," he said. "So we really don't know what our sales are going to be this summer.

"We just have to kind of wait and see."

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