Amid drought, Southeast feels powerful thirst

Farmers suffer, cities restrict water use and consumers turn to conservation

June 19, 2007|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ATLANTA -- North and South Carolina are fighting over a river. In Tennessee, springs are drying up, jeopardizing production of Jack Daniels whiskey. The mayor of Los Angeles is asking residents to take shorter showers. And in Georgia, the governor is praying for rain.

More than one-third of the United States is in the grip of a menacing drought that threatens to make its way into Illinois and other Midwestern states before the summer ends.

While much of the West has experienced drought for close to a decade, the latest system is centered over Alabama and extends to much of the Southeast, afflicting Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, North and South Carolina and Virginia as well as parts of Arkansas and West Virginia.

A level D4 drought, the most extreme level charted and the worst in the nation, is centered in northern Alabama and touches parts of Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia. Severe drought conditions are moving north into Kentucky.

"It's one of the worst droughts in living memory in the Southeast," said Doug LeComte, a specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "This happens only about every 50 years or so."

The severe conditions have forced cities to set tough restrictions, barring everything from watering lawns on weekdays to wiping out summer rituals such as cooling children with hoses.

As lawns turn brown and tempers flare, neighbors are turning in those whose lawns appear too green. Officials in some cities are imposing hefty fines, turning off water service to homes and throwing chronic abusers into jail.

In Columbia County, near Augusta, Ga., officials are receiving a half-dozen calls a day from people turning in neighbors. They have turned off water to 50 homes that violated the water ban at least three times. Wellington, Fla., has issued more than 2,000 citations, with fines of $75 to $250 for repeat offenders.

The Birmingham, Ala., area has tough repercussions for those who ignore a ban on using lawn sprinklers or decide to wash their cars in driveways. Residents are being told to use hand sprayers or fill buckets to water flowers and grass. In Birmingham, violators face hefty surcharges for using more than the allotted amount of water.

In Atlanta, where rapid growth is contributing to the water shortage, outdoor water use is banned during the week. In suburban Forsyth County, violators can receive up to $1,000 in fines and up to 60 days in jail for the second violation. The fire chief in suburban Roswell is considering banning 4th of July fireworks, fearing that a spark could ignite fires.

Extreme drought in at least 95 Georgia counties has hurt the state's $54 billion agricultural industry. Officials said farmers throughout the South are being hit hard, with losses to cotton, peanuts and corn. Farmers in Kentucky and Alabama are selling their herds because of a shortage of hay to feed them.

"Farmers are reporting nothing but dust. It's dire straits," LeComte said.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue proclaimed June 11 a Day of Prayer for Agriculture and joined more than 250 people at the Georgia Farm Bureau in Macon to pray for rain.

Some residents are finding ways to conserve. Suzan Satterfield said she uses "gray water" from her morning shower to water her plants.

"I have a big potted begonia that looks like it's on death's door if I don't water it every evening," said Satterfield, 40, of Norcross, a suburb of Atlanta. "So toward the end of my shower when I am rinsing off, I stop the drain and collect about 6 inches of water in a bucket."

She said she usually collects about three bucketfuls each day, and her plants seem to thrive on the soapy water.

Jerry Hamilton, the manager for Jack Daniels in Lynchburg, Tenn., said the stream that supplies iron-free water for its whiskey recipe was flowing at less than half its normal rate. Officials said the distillery is conserving the water from Cave Springs, which has been used for 140 years, using it only for whiskey.

South Carolina and North Carolina are battling over the Catawba River, which provides drinking water and electricity for the two states. South Carolina has filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking to bar a plan by two suburbs of Charlotte, N.C., to pump up to 10 million gallons of water a day from the river.

Unless a resolution is found quickly, the states could end up in a water war like that involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Those states have been embroiled in a court battle over how to share the water in the Chattahoochee River for 16 years.

Experts blame the Southeast's drought on a persistent high-pressure system that has kept rain away. In California, an abnormally dry winter is the culprit.

Americans use an average of 100 gallons of water a day, and they're being urged to cut their demand to put less pressure on the supply.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants residents to reduce their water use by 10 percent through small changes, such as taking shorter showers.

People will have to learn to conserve or pay a price in the future, LeComte said.

"This is a reminder that these major droughts can happen anywhere," he said. "Whether this is a trend or not, it will make people rethink their use of this valuable resource and realize that it is not infinite."

Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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