ATLANTA — Federal officials warned Thursday that three key reservoirs along the river system shared by Georgia, Alabama and Florida are expected to drop in the next few weeks, another dose of bad news for the drought-stricken Southeast.
The news from the U.S. Corps of Engineers worried some environmentalists who fear the dropping lake levels could set the stage for another round of water restrictions throughout the region in the fall.
“If we had moved more aggressively in May and June last year, we would have not had the same problems in September,” said Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a Georgia water protection group. “And it appears to me we are once again going into the summer and are not being very cautious with how we use water.”
The Corps, which manages regional water resources, warned in a dispatch that West Point Lake, which straddles the border between Georgia and Alabama, is expected to drop nearly 2.5 feet over the next five weeks. Lake Walter George, which also hugs the border, is expected to drop 1.25 feet.
Lake Lanier, the North Georgia reservoir that is Atlanta’s main water source, is slated to drop 1.3 feet during the same time period. But while the other lakes are at or near normal pool level, Lake Lanier is already 14 feet below its normal level for this time of year, a near record low.
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Partly to blame for the decline of West Point Lake and Lake Walter George is an expected boost in flows to Florida to support four federally protected species living in the Apalachicola River.
Lanier is expected to drop purely because of low rainfall, high evaporation rates and demand from Atlanta’s 4 million residents. And the Corps said it had little hope that the conditions could soon improve.
“Areas of the Southeast region may be facing drought conditions unprecedented in their scope and severity,” said Corps spokesman Patrick Robbins. “Everyone involved and affected will have to be part of the solution to get through these difficult times.”
An epic drought has gripped parts of the Southeast for the past two years, and signs that spring rains were helping ease the dry conditions have petered out in the summer heat. Now some 62 percent of the region is suffering from drought conditions — up from 57 percent three months ago.
In South Carolina, an unprecedented June heat wave hit just as crops like corn, soybeans, peanuts, hay and cotton were in a critical stage for growth. Most of them could be wiped out without rain soon, said state Agriculture Department marketing specialist Brad Boozer.
“The fields are so dry it’s like walking across corn flakes,” he said.
Areas in South Carolina and southern North Carolina along and north of Interstate 85 are as much as 20 inches below normal rainfall over the past 12 months, marking the driest period in more than six decades, said Pat Tanner, a National Weather Service hydrologist.
Georgia is suffering from similar conditions, but the state has relaxed water restrictions despite warnings from forecasters who predict the dry conditions could grow even worse.
The state has backed off restrictions that banned virtually all outdoor watering in the northern part of the state and rescinded an order that utilities in the area reduce water use by 10 percent.
Some critics say the dry conditions are a signal that the region should embrace more water-saving measures, such as permanent outdoor watering restrictions and more efficient plumbing fixtures.
“We’ve sort of been forced into a water crisis two years in a row,” said April Ingle, director of the Georgia River Network. “That’s due to the fact that we’re in a historic drought and it’s also because we’ve failed to plan and put in commonsense water efficiency standards.”