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Wilted industry: Drought has cost horticulture millions
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Loren Hildebrant, father of Ben Hildebrant, a West Hall High School student injured in a diving accident this summer, talks about his son’s recovery, challenges that remain and his return to school Monday.

In the horticulture world, business is no longer blooming.

And as state officials consider adding emergency measures to the already-stringent water restrictions, nursery owners and landscapers are tightening their grips on their wallets.

Kellie Bowen, owner of Full Bloom Nursery in Clermont, said that she has done 90 percent less business in the last two weeks than she did in the first two weeks of October 2006. The nursery sells everything from bedding plants to big trees.

"Business has just completely died," Bowen said. "This hit that our industry is taking has been just devastating."

Fall is usually one of the busiest times of the year for Full Bloom, and Bowen usually hires seasonal employees to help her get through it. This year, she has had to cut the hours of her two full-time employees, and seasonal employees are out of the question.

"Right now, we’re just trying to keep our head above water and wondering when is this going to end," Bowen said. "I guess nobody knows until it starts raining again."

Sales in the urban agriculture industry exceeded $8 billion in the state last year, according to statistics from the Urban Agriculture Coalition. Industry officials project that the industry already lost $1.2 billion between June and October this year. If the drought continues, many nurseries and other landscape companies could face certain death.

"The economic impact it’s going to have is going to be astronomical when it’s all said and done," Bowen said.

Carol Crouch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, is working on a plan of "emergency measures" for water conservation that she will take to Gov. Sonny Perdue in the next two weeks. Local water officials have said on multiple occasions that the plan will cut out some of the current exemptions for commercial use, and will include specific numbers on the economic impact of the emergency measures.

Mary Kay Woodworth, spokeswoman for the Urban Agriculture Coalition, said that representatives are already talking with the governor’s office about Small Business Administration Loans that would help water-intensive industries survive during the drought. She said that the governor could also declare a disaster, but the state’s next move is unclear.

"Those conversations have already begun, but there’s nothing definitive yet," Woodworth said.

However, Kevin Chambers, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Division, would not confirm anything about the plan.

The Urban Agriculture Coalition projects that since the drought began a year ago, nearly 14,000 people have lost their jobs in the urban agriculture industry. Woodworth estimates that number will double by the end of the year.

The Urban Agriculture Coalition is watching the moves local governments are making to conserve water in the North Georgia region. Woodworth says that the urban agriculture industry has become the whipping boy of water-consuming businesses.

Local governments have limited the ‘new installation’ exemption for landscape companies in Forsyth, Cobb and Athens-Clarke counties as well as the cities of Atlanta, Jefferson and Canton, Woodworth said. The exemption, like other water-for-business-use exemptions, was meant to protect commercial interests.

"At the same time, no other industry has been restricted," Woodworth said. "Their exemptions have not been modified at all."

Bowen said that the modifications in exemptions should be done in a variety of ways without putting the burden of conservation on one industry.

"Saying that it’s OK to pressure wash the parking lot at the same time we’re telling everybody they’ve got to let their trees die and put the landscapers out of business is not good water management," Bowen said.

In 2008, state officials will revise the Drought Water Management Plan. The plan with the current business exemptions was drafted in 2003 based on what state officials learned from the drought in 2000, Chambers said.

Woodworth said the current plan is not tailored to deal with a drought of this magnitude, and the people who drafted the 2003 plan could have planned it a little better. She said the current plan is open to wide interpretation as to what a "new landscape" is, creating a one-size-fits all solution for an industry with several subindustries.

"The shortcomings of the plan are evident based on the level of the drought that we’re in and the development and growth in Georgia," Woodworth said.

But the landscape industry was involved in drafting the plan along with other water-intensive industries, Chamber said.

Woodworth said the problem with the drafting of the Drought Water Management Plan in 2003 was comfort.

"It had started raining again" by the time they drafted the plan, Woodworth said.

But there is more to the problem than the drought management plan, Woodworth said. Though she said it is easy to point fingers now, she still does not understand why unbridled growth was allowed to occur in the metro Atlanta area without the proper infrastructure in place.

But Woodworth said even though she has the landscape industry’s business at interest, she is not being completely insensitive to the dwindling water supply.

"We certainly recognize the crisis we’re in," Woodworth said.

"The problem we have (with local governments handling the situation) rather than limit exemptions equally and fairly, only one industry was forced to have their exemptions changed and forced to control water."

Bowen said state officials waited too long to take action, and her business is suffering because of it.

"Why did we wait until we almost drained Lake Lanier to say ‘you know what, we’re in a crisis?’" Bowen said.

The state EPD is working on a statewide water management plan that would include proposals for new reservoirs. Public hearings are being held statewide this week, with one at 6 p.m. today at Gainesville State College.