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Our Views: No time to waste
End of drought is good news, but lets not pull the plug on conserving water
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Good news, bad news time.

Experts have declared our two-year drought now over after several months of above-average rainfall. The drought that saw Lake Lanier drop to record low water levels late in 2007 has given way to a lush, green, wet 2009 in North Georgia.

As a result, the state Environmental Protection Division has lifted most of the watering restrictions that have been in place for nearly two years, allowing residents to water their lawns and gardens, wash their cars and use water normally.

This is good news on several fronts for quite a few of us. Lake Lanier has topped 1,066 feet, just five feet shy of full pool. A full lake means more tourism this summer and a boost to businesses that rely on Lanier for their livelihoods.

It's good news for lake homeowners who have seen their docks and boats grounded in a field of sprouting weeds. Now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to ease restrictions on dock expansion, which could provide a lift to the local housing market.

It's good news for landscaping companies who saw a drop in business during the drought and private gardeners who were limited in what they could plant. Those ugly brown lawns of last summer already have given way to wide expanses of greenery.

More rain, more water, no restrictions. Life back to normal. All good, right?

Well, yes and no. This is where the bad news, and a word of caution, comes in.

True, the drought is over and the rules have been loosened. But does that mean we should return to our wasteful ways and pretend that drought conditions are never coming back?

The lesson we should learn from the past drought should stay in mind for years to come, whatever our rainfall levels. Droughts come and go; this one is gone, but another one is out there waiting for us. Will we be better prepared for the next one, or will we stay on a roller coaster of waste and conserve?

Keep in mind that while Lanier is closer to full pool now, it is not likely to stay that way. Hot weather causes more evaporation, and summer storms don't provide quite as much rain as those soaking spring showers. Then comes fall, a drier season in our area. By year's end, the lake could be back down several feet.

Meanwhile, legal trouble looms on the horizon. A federal judge in Jacksonville is poring over the particulars of the three-state dispute over how water in the Lanier-Chattahoochee River basin should be shared. Though lakes and rivers shared by Alabama and Florida are plenty full, those states are pressing ahead with the idea that Georgia cannot rely on Lanier as a source for drinking water, even as the Army Corps of Engineers seeks to rewrite its decades-old manuals to include that vital need. We don't know how the judge will rule or if he will allow the corps to maintain minimum water releases from Lanier.

So why end water restrictions now when we have just exited our long dry spell? Surely many who chafed under those rules wish they had been suspended earlier.

One theory might be that the reduction in water usage, while helpful in preserving that resource, has created revenue problems for local governments. Reduced water use by homeowners and businesses has led to smaller water bills. Some municipalities have had to raise rates to make up for the shortfall, leading many to feel they were being punished for their civic-minded behavior.

It's a Catch-22 for public works departments: Lower earnings from water use hits governments in a time when tax revenues are down across the board and the economy remains in a recession. The resulting budget cuts, layoffs and furloughs mean fewer government workers are trying to serve more people in need.

Perhaps more normal water use will bring in more money for cities missing that revenue stream. But is it in our best interests in the long run to use more water than we need to? The drought may have ended, but we only have a few months of rainfall as a buffer between us and the next drought. Prudence would indicate that continued conservation should be kept in place so we don't squander what Mother Nature provided in answer to our prayers.

Our planet's climate patterns, for whatever reason, remain unpredictable. El Niño in the Pacific gives way to La Niña and back again. What was dry gets rain; what was cold turns hot. Despite their best efforts and the latest technology, climatologists can't be sure of what comes next. That's why we need to be ready for whatever happens.

That's why it's wise for local communities to keep pushing ahead with plans to build and maintain new reservoirs to provide water in wet and dry times. Such is the case with the Glade Farms project in northeastern Hall. It takes years to acquire all the necessary permits to lay the way for a reservoir, along with the expense of filtering and distributing the water it catches. There is no time to waste on those projects just because it's raining now.

Federal court rulings. Summer evaporation. Quirky climate patterns. Continued growth in the Southeast. None of these are within our control. Using our water wisely and well still is. Such conservation efforts shouldn't just come in a crisis but should remain part of our daily habits no matter what the weather brings.

Let's keep that in mind even as we celebrate the end of our long drought.