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Region's drought risk is serious, scientists say
Climate forum members say awareness lacking, stress river basins troubles
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BUFORD — Scientists with their eyes turned on the drought in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin are struggling with ways to get the message across: This dry spell is significant.

"There's a strong probability we're going to be water-short come springtime," said Keith Ingram, coordinator of the Southeast Climate Consortium.

Ingram is a partner in a pilot program coordinated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that focuses on climatological changes in the larger river basin, of which Lake Lanier is a part.

The group met Thursday and Friday at Lake Lanier Islands Resort. Much of their discussions were highly technical as climatologists, meteorologists and hydrologists predicted future weather patterns in the Southeast and how they might affect streams in the basin.

Friday, group members turned their focus to making the data they gathered more palatable to the general public.

The current drought has hit the lower part of the basin particularly hard and is expected to linger through spring.

In some ways, the impact has been worse than the drought that threatened the water supply of metro Atlanta in 2007-08.

Streams on the Flint River hit record lows this summer. Farmers and endangered species that rely on the basin have suffered, as agronomists and ecologists testified to the group Thursday.

But the response to this drought has been somewhat indifferent compared to that of the drought of 2007-08, said John Feldt, the hydrologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Southeast River Forecasting System.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages water in the basin, approved Georgia's request to restrict flows out of Lanier to conserve water for the upcoming drought. But the panic of 2007, when the drought made daily headlines, is nonexistent now. State officials say their confidence in the water supply comes from new water conservation measures taken by the state following the 2008 drought.

"I'm very puzzled by it," said Feldt. "... It's interesting how it's not making the headlines."

Ingram said he believes the lack of public discussion of the significance of the drought is partly due to the group's ability to relate with the general public.

The group provides early forecasts of drought in the basin. In theory, those predictions might better inform water managers, farmers, local, state and federal officials who have a stake in the basin's water.

But scientists using acronyms to refer to atmospheric pressure patterns in higher latitudes can make the average person's eyes cross.

"We've got to learn to communicate better," Ingram said.

The ACF is one of four river basins in the country where climatologists are making this holistic approach to drought forecasting.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Integrated Drought Information System is coordinating the effort, now in its experimental phases.

The federal agency chose the basin for the pilot program in 2009. It followed a ruling by a federal judge that threatened to limit Georgia's use of the water in Lake Lanier and the end of a record, 100-year drought, said Lisa Darby, a meteorologist with NOAA who coordinates the pilot program.

"It's just better to look at it holistically ... obviously, the impacts are all related on the basin and aren't state-specific," Darby said.

Originally, the pilot in the ACF basin was supposed to last two years.

The two-year period ended with this week's forum, but organizers want to keep the experiment going until they can work out the kinks and make it more accessible to the public.

"We don't feel that we're done, and we have the money to keep going," Darby said.

Group members want to become known as "an authoritative voice" that provides a unified message on climate conditions in the river basin that might better guide water policy, said Darby.

Presently, the group's work is experimental, and by nature, isn't perfect. Its goals and its reach haven't quite been defined. Its communication skills are still a work in progress.

"This is an experiment ... we want to see how we can make it better," said Ingram. "If it works, it could change the way drought forecasting works for the entire country."


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