ATLANTA — Georgia’s top environmental official warned Wednesday that the state’s steady descent into drought may force her to tighten a range of water restrictions that were loosened earlier this year.
Carol Couch said she will evaluate water use next month to decide whether to impose new restrictions for the dozens of communities in drought-parched north Georgia where some watering limits have been relaxed.
“This is an important time for Georgia and Georgians to show what they’re made of,” said Couch, director of the state’s environmental protection division.
The announcement came as state climatologist David Stooksbury delivered more bad news: Soaring summer temperatures and light rainfall have plunged more of Georgia into a deepening drought.
Couch has faced criticism from some environmentalists who said relaxing water restrictions during the epic drought could send conflicting messages about the state’s water crisis — and set the stage for tighter limits in the fall. Meanwhile, she is under pressure from agriculture groups who fear a new round of conservation measures could cripple their industry.
“Restrictions similar to what we had last year could be devastating,” said Tommy Irvin, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner. “We hope she’ll work with us to avoid that this year.”
Georgia banned virtually all outdoor watering across north Georgia and ordered water utilities in the area to cut withdrawals by 10 percent late last year. But the state began to relax many of its restrictions earlier this year, saying that spring rains and conservation efforts have bolstered Georgia’s water supply.
Couch has since rescinded the order for a 10 percent cut, allowed limited hand watering across north Georgia and relaxed watering rules for 31 communities to allow limited outdoor watering. None of those communities rely on Lake Lanier, the dwindling reservoir that supplies most of Atlanta with its water.
She points to signs that the restrictions have worked — water use in north Georgia has dropped 28 percent from this time last year — but said next month will be a key test.
“July will be an important time to take stock in our status and see if we need additional restrictions,” she said.
Summer temperatures that routinely breach 90 degrees haven’t helped the situation. All but a handful of counties in southeast Georgia are mired in drought conditions, and Stooksbury fears that a dry July could draw even those last holdouts into a drought.
Meanwhile, a growing pocket in the northeast corner of the state has descended into “extreme” drought — the government’s second worst category. Almost half the state’s streams are at record lows, and Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s main water supply, is more than 14 feet below normal levels.
As Stooksbury has warned for months, the area’s best chance to emerge from a drought rests in tropical storms, which don’t typically become active until later in the summer.
For her part, Couch expressed concern that the gains made last year from water conservation could be wiped out with poor management now.
“We were not prepared last year. We are prepared this year,” she said. “And we’ll only remain prepared if communities continue to conserve.”