Dry2k: Georgia failed to plan for drought

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Dry2k: State failed to plan for drought The drought in Georgia Charles Seabrook - Staff Monday, June 19, 2000

Although Georgia suffered through one of its worst droughts 13 years ago, it emerged from that without a plan to handle future drought emergencies.

"I guess we've been remiss in that," said Harold Reheis, the director of the state's Environmental Protection Division.

He said a lack of personnel and dealing with pressing issues, such as the interstate water war, are reasons the EPD has not had time to develop such a plan. "I promise you, though, that we will have a drought management plan in place next year," he said.

The entire state will be under a water-use restriction as of today.

The 15-county metro Atlanta area is under a state-imposed ban that allows residential watering every other day, using the odd-even house number system. And there is no watering between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Several other states and cities have long had plans for dealing with droughts.

Environmental groups are saying if Georgia had such a blueprint, the state might not be facing the dire water restrictions --- and the promise of more severe cutbacks to come --- it faces now.

"Here we are short of more than 20 inches of rainfall in metro Atlanta during the past year and a half," said Sally Bethea, director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. "Water managers should have known two years ago that we were in a drought, and should have put some kind of plan into effect to help mitigate the impacts in case the drought got worse.

"Instead, we have to be in the middle of a drought crisis before the state takes steps to deal with it."

EPD officials held discussions more than a dozen years ago about developing a drought management plan after the drought of 1988 caused hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses and prompted officials to impose stringent watering restrictions.

"The 1988 drought should have been the state's wake-up call, but we didn't heed it," said Neill Herring of the Georgia Sierra Club.

While no one knows what a drought management plan will contain, Reheis said it most likely will have guidelines for predicting when a drought is developing, and at what point conditions would trigger predetermined measures to lessen the drought's impact.

Officials in the Washington, D.C., area, also facing a severe drought, this month approved a drought management plan that sets guidelines to determine when water conservation is necessary. There will be four basic levels of drought alerts: normal, drought watch, drought warning and drought emergency, said Barbara Rosemann, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The alerts are to be color-coded, similar to air-quality warnings. At each level of alert, varying degrees of water conservation measures will be imposed.

The task force that drew up the plan was formed during last year's drought.

New Hampshire's plan, initiated in 1990, also specifies four levels of drought alerts: alert, warning, emergency and disaster. A disaster declaration would call for severe water-use restrictions.

In San Antonio, a drought management plan could initiate restrictions that include covering swimming pools when not in use; prohibiting restaurants from serving water, except on request; and prohibiting the washing of parking lots, driveways, streets and sidewalks.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 20, 2000

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