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Little rain means state still in drought

LAWRENCEVILLE - With gloves and hats taking the place of short-sleeved shirts and sunglasses, plans to water the lawn, wash the car and let the kids run through the sprinklers have probably fallen by the wayside.

But when the weather warms up next week, the water may again start flowing.

Recent rainfall notwithstanding, this week's wet weather has not been enough to raise Georgia out of a mild drought.

With an abnormally dry winter, State Climatologist David Stooksbury said, chances are this summer will be dry as well. That means watering schedules that limit outdoor use of the wet stuff remain in place.

"Following an El Nino winter, it's historically dry. We may get fooled, and that'd be nice," Stooksbury said. "If it continues to stay warm and dry the next few weeks, we'll enter into a moderate drought."

Park Ranger Brad Fogle said at 1,068.38 feet, Lake Lanier was more than two feet below its normal level of 1,071 feet at the end of March. April 1, it was 1,068.38 feet, and had only risen to 1,068.5 feet by Friday.

The area has experienced below-average rainfall, he said. Stooksbury said Gwinnett had gotten 10 inches of rain through March 29, with the average yearly rainfall being 15.55 inches, and was more than two inches below average on March alone.

Because Gwinnett County relies exclusively on surface water, Assistant Director of Water Resources Lynn Smarr said, rainfall and lake levels are crucial to the county's ability to provide water to residents.

Although the outdoor watering regulations have been in effect for several years - Stooksbury said the state has been teetering between abnormally dry and mild drought since this time last year - Smarr said people often get complacent about the rules if they aren't reminded.

"It's getting you to be conscious of what you're doing," she said. "People are already in the mode to be water-wise. It's educational."

The state prohibits outdoor water use all day on Fridays and between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every other day. People who live at even-numbered addresses are allowed to water at other times on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, while odd numbered addresses can water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

Businesses that rely on water, like landscapers and car washes, are exempt from the rules.

Smarr said conserving water may seem small, but adds up when it comes to ensuring that Lake Lanier has a large enough water supply for the region.

"It may not look so large if one business left one sprinkler on," she said. "I think people understand and have a heart for protecting Lake Lanier. It's an incredibly beautiful place."

Stooksbury said the rivers that feed Lake Lanier are in the sixth and eighth percentile, meaning that they are drier than they have been 94 and 92 years out of every 100. Hotter weather will mean more water is evaporating, and as trees and flowers start to bloom, they use more water, too.

Paying attention to water issues will help ease problems if the drought continues, he said.

"If people realize we're in a drought and save water now, hopefully we won't have to go to more restrictions later," he said.

Fogle, at Lake Lanier, said when the lake is just a foot or two lower than normal pool it does not have any ill effect on normal operations. All the ramps are open, he said, and the lake is still usable.

But if dry weather continues into the summer, he said, there is the possibility that the lake may suffer. Recent rainfall added just 18/100 of an inch to the water level.

"The fear is later in July or August, if the drought continues, it's going to go down," he said. "What we need is a big rain event with runoff to make a difference. What we need is a big, soaking rain."

For more information about water conservation, see www.gaepd.org, www.georgiadrought.org or www.conservewatergeorgia.net.