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Water restrictions eased for public utilities, not residents
Lanier in worse shape now than a year ago, EPD says
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Listen to EPD Director Carol Couch discuss her actions on drought regulations.

Gainesville and Hall County will remain under level four drought restrictions as they have been since last October, state officials said at Tuesday’s meeting of the state drought response committee.

Environmental Protection Division Director Carol Couch said that Lake Lanier is in worse shape now than it was a year ago. Wei Zeng, a program manager with the EPD, said Lanier currently contains 57 percent of its conservation level, compared to 91 percent at the same time a year ago.

Couch, however, ended an order Tuesday requiring utilities in 61 North Georgia counties to reduce water use by 10 percent. The outdoor water ban remains in effect for Gainesville, as well as other utilities that draw water directly out of Lake Lanier.

The current exemptions, allowing hand watering for 25 minutes and watering of newly planted landscaping, will continue.

Couch said that while the water level on Lanier is lower, the state and many local communities are better prepared to deal with the drought.

"Managing during the drought means to also recognize that if we’re prepared, we should be able to weather the conditions that are happening climatologically," Couch said. "We were not in that situation last fall when we put these measures in place. I’m happy to report that we are in much better condition on balance, with the exception of Lake Lanier."

While Couch noted that there are lower levels on Lake Hartwell and Clark’s Hill Reservoir on the state’s eastern border, the dependence on them for water supply is not as great as the metro Atlanta area’s use of Lanier.

Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville’s Public Utilities Department, attended the meeting in Atlanta and said he will talk with city officials about how Tuesday’s announcement will affect the 12 recommendations the city implemented when Gov. Sonny Perdue mandated the 10 percent cut in November.

"I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to relax several of them," Randall said.

The city’s withdrawal from Lanier dropped to 15.82 million gallons per day when Perdue ordered utilities in 61 Georgia counties to reduce their water use by 10 percent of their winter average. The city met the required reduction every month except in November, when many utilities were getting used to the new rules.

But Couch’s move Tuesday restored that permit to allow the city to withdraw up to 35 million gallons per day. However, Randall said he was not sure if the restored permit would also restore the utility’s lost revenues.

"I think that it will affect them some, but I don’t think it will change them a whole lot," Randall said.

However, the EPD director said the level of Lake Lanier is prompting her to keep the full level four restrictions in place for utilities which draw water from the reservoir.

Pat Stevens, the chief of the environmental planning division of the Atlanta Regional Commission and a member of the panel advising Couch, laid much of the blame for Lanier’s woes on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"Lake Lanier is extremely low," Stevens said. "The reason Lake Lanier is as low as it is is partly because of drought, but in our view, largely because the way the corps operated it. If it had been operated differently, it would be recovering just like all the other lakes."

The other reservoirs on the Chattahoochee, West Point and Walter F. George are at full summer pool.

She said the corps adopted a new plan in 2006, which hurt Lanier in 2007.

"From March 2007 to November 2007, they (corps) sent all the water on the ground in Georgia to Florida. They didn’t store any of it in the lakes," she said.

Couch will allow utilities that do not draw water directly from Lanier to apply for additional exemptions such as controlled outdoor watering. She reduced the number of counties in the most severe drought response by six and put much of coastal and deep South Georgia in a level one drought, which requires an odd-even watering schedule.

David Stooksbury, the state climatologist, said inflows into both the Chestatee and Chattahoochee rivers, which feed into Lanier, are significantly lower.

"In the last couple of weeks, the inflows from both rivers have been extremely low for late April and early May," Stooksbury said. "While we are not at record (low) levels, we have been near the levels we saw in 1986 and 2007."

One of the concerns expressed at the meeting is the severe impact on the state’s green industry, such as nurseries and commercial landscapers.

"When they get more restrictive, they target one industry ... the outdoor water users of agriculture," said Bryan Tolar, a vice president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. "This (Tuesday’s order) doesn’t do anything to correct that in local communities that have been too restrictive. But it does give those with local water availability to come out (of restrictions) and that will help."