05 October 2007

It's bad out there....

Things around here are getting really serious...

this is from this weeks edition of our local community paper- The Flag Pole.

The Drought
What’s Our Next Move?
originally published October 3, 2007

The sad scene at the Bear Creek Reservoir, as of late September.

If the current intense drought continues long enough, Athens-Clarke’s water-saving restrictions will have to move to a final, emergency level, allocating water to specific categories of commercial and industrial users based on how the water is used. Food preparation, for example, might receive a higher priority than other uses, according to Athens-Clarke County (ACC) Manager Alan Reddish. No decisions have yet been reached about how much reduction will be required of various categories of users, although Reddish speculates that at least some reduction might be required from all. “We have never had one of these plans before,” he says - because there hasn’t been a drought severe enough to need one. Also undecided: whether homeowners would also be asked to reduce their usage beyond the current outdoor watering ban.

Reddish hopes that the current watering ban - intended to reduce water usage by 20 percent - will stretch out existing supplies until rain comes. There is no date certain when water will run out, he says, because “it takes a while for everybody to get the word” about the ban, and demand may still be dropping. Outdoor watering is also banned in Barrow, Oconee and Jackson counties, co-partners in the Bear Creek Reservoir. Athens’ total outdoor watering ban - in place since Sept. 17 - may have bought the county an extra 12 days of reservoir water, Reddish thinks. At current usage rates, reservoir water should last into November. (After that, water could still be pumped from the depleted reservoir, but the remaining water would not be as suitable for treatment. Its taste and color might be affected, ACC Public Utilities Director Gary Duck has said.)

At press time, ACC officials were optimistic that the Georgia Environmental Protection Division would soon be granting Athens a waiver to withdraw up to 15 million gallons per day from the Middle Oconee River for 45 days. Along with county-wide reductions in use, officials hope the additional river water will get us to the end of the calendar year - but they stress that it is not a reason to lighten up on conservation practices. “Having this ability to pump an additional 15 million gallons [per day] by no means suggests that we need to reduce any water restrictions,” Reddish says.

At some point, and based on specific technical “triggers” that include soil moisture and reservoir level, ACC Commissioners may be asked to approve an emergency water-rationing plan: the last, most drastic step of the county’s six-step drought management plan. (The first five steps simply required more and more limited hours for outdoor watering, along with a requirement that car washes, plant nurseries and construction sites reduce their water use by 20 percent.) Details of a last-step rationing plan are being discussed by Reddish’s office, the Public Utilities Department, and Jordan, Jones and Goulding, a public-utilities consulting firm, Reddish says. “It would allocate water to the highest-priority uses first, and then, through some sort of hierarchy, allocate less water to other lesser-priority uses,” possibly even cutting some to zero, he says. But nobody in government likes speculating about what the rules would be.

“We don’t want to say what that is right now,” says Mayor Heidi Davison, “so that we don’t begin to send out false messages to people until it’s perfectly clear what the plan is going to be.” Reddish said a plan will be ready if and when it’s needed. “We will have one available if conditions indicate we need to have one - right now, we’re not suggesting we need one,” he says. “Sometime around the middle of December, we usually will begin to pick up a significant amount of rain. So that’s where we’re trying to get to.”

Georgia’s current drought may be the driest on record in the short term, says UGA engineering professor (and state climatologist) David Stooksbury. But defining droughts can be a complicated task, and one in the mid-1920s was worse in terms of duration and impact, he says. “Droughts don’t develop over a week or two… It’s a cumulative effect,“ Stooksbury points out. Rainfall and temperature records have been kept in Georgia since the late 1800s, and stream flow records for the past 70 or 80 years, he says. Recently, local stream flows have been setting daily records compared to the same dates in earlier years. Jordan, Jones and Goulding engineer Bill Martello says that both branches of the Oconee River hit severely low flows in August of 2002, one of the worst drought years (until now) in recent memory. But that year, he says, rainfall from tropical storms in September replenished the water table. September 2007 rainfall was negligible.

Over the long run, Stooksbury says, “there really is no trend one way or the other” in terms of local stream flows or rainfall; there’s possibly a slight cooling trend in temperature, he says, despite a global trend towards warming temperatures.

by: John Huie

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