Georgia was already in a drought when 2007 began. But last winter and spring passed without the usual rains, and by mid-summer, the situation reached a tipping point, rapidly going from bad to worse to unimaginable. Also, this year, the 17-year tri-state water wars remained behind the scenes until the worst drought in the region's history exacerbated both the problems and the tempers of those involved.
Most people, including politicians, didn't pay much attention until Lake Lanier started dropping precipitously, losing more than 2 feet of water in August and almost 3 feet in September. On Nov. 19, Lanier surpassed its previous record low of 1,052.66 feet above sea level. The lake is currently more than 20 feet below its normal full pool of 1,071.
Similar circumstances exist at most other lakes in North Georgia. Many private wells have run dry, and streams have slowed to a trickle.
Some municipalities have drilled new wells in search of more water, or have had to renovate their intake structures in order to continue withdrawing surface water. But the Georgia Environmental Protection Division waited until Sept. 28 to issue Level 4 drought restrictions, banning all outdoor watering in North Georgia.
In the water wars, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley began firing verbal salvos across the Chattahoochee in October. Near the end of the month, Georgia filed a motion in U.S. District Court to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restrict additional water flow from Lake Lanier and other reservoirs on the Chattahoochee River.
Perdue this fall also asked President Bush to declare 85 drought stricken counties as federal disaster areas and to take direct actions relative to wildlife regulations and the operating plan for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. The action sent a firestorm of letters to Bush from Alabama and Florida.
On Oct. 23, Perdue ordered water withdrawal permit holders in 61 counties, including the city of Gainesville's water system, to cut their water use by 10 percent. On Dec. 18, the governor announced that as a group, those users had reduced consumption by 15 percent, though Gainesville narrowly missed its goal.
Officials from Georgia, Florida and Alabama met in a Nov. 1 meeting in Washington with White House officials, led by U.S. Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne. Kempthorne prevailed in bringing the players back to the table with much cooler heads. A second meeting took place in mid-December in Tallahassee, Fla. with a commitment to reach a long-term settlement by Feb. 15.
On Dec. 21, state climatologist David Stooksbury predicted no end to the drought in 2008. The high-pressure system that has driven rain away from Georgia all year shows no signs of abating before summer, he said.
Without winter or spring rains in the coming year, conditions that are currently rated "extreme" or "exceptional" could become catastrophic.
Industries such as farming, landscaping, boating and tourism have already taken a huge hit. Now the EPD says cities should prepare for the possibility of not even being able to meet residents' basic water needs. Contingency plans are being drawn up for critical facilities such as hospitals.