ATLANTA - When the state slapped an outdoor watering ban on the northern third of Georgia three weeks ago, its chief environmental regulator warned that she probably wouldn't stop there.
This week, Carol Couch, director of the Environmental Protection Division, plans to give Gov. Sonny Perdue some options for further restrictions on water use, as the brutal drought affecting most of Georgia continues to worsen.
But it's unclear what steps the governor might take beyond the "Level 4" drought order already in place because he doesn't have any guidelines.
"There's really no Level 5," said Bryan Wagoner, spokesman for the Georgia Association of Water Professionals, which represents municipal and industrial water systems across the state. "There's nowhere on paper to know what's next. ... This is all uncharted territory."
However, judging from Couch's recent statements and provisions of state law, there are some indications of what might be next.
The outdoor watering restrictions the state imposed late last month contain a list of exemptions, including construction sites, golf courses, commercial car washes and new residential landscaping, if it's installed by a professional.
Tom Gehl, senior governmental relations associate with the Georgia Municipal Association, said those exemptions probably would be the first to go if additional restrictions are ordered.
"She's going to have to look at other uses, like car washes and the 30-day waiver for landscaping businesses," he said. "It's not the time to be planting big lawns."
Couch said last week that the current restrictions have allowed most large water utilities to cut demand by 15 percent to 20 percent, and eliminating the exemptions could be expected to reduce water use further.
Indoor use next
Getting beyond that would involve targeting indoor water use.
"There's much that can be done with indoor users," Couch said last week.
But Gehl said most of the mandated water conservation the state is likely to achieve with homeowners stops at their front doors.
"It's assumed that when you're using water inside the house, it's for human consumption," he said. "I don't know how you regulate that kind of activity."
As a result, it's the industrial water users who are waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Indeed, under state law, business and industry are on the low end of the priority list when it comes to rationing water.
Agriculture takes precedence over other industries, and above that is public health and safety, meaning such uses as drinking water, sewer systems and fire protection.
Since industries are big water customers, huge reductions in demand could be achieved if they use less water.
For example, Wagoner said 85 percent of the water consumed by Dalton Utilities goes to the carpet industry.
Also, water-use restrictions on industries are easier to enforce, he said.
"We can't read every residential meter every day or even every week," he said. "We can monitor (industries) much easier."
Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape & Turf Association, said an across-the-board crackdown on industrial water use would put some fairness into the drought restrictions.
She said Georgia's $8.1 billion landscaping industry lost $1.2 billion during the spring and summer, when just odd-even outdoor watering restrictions were in effect.
By the end of the first week of the total ban, she said the industry had suffered 14,000 layoffs.
Woodworth said the 30-day exemption for new commercially installed landscaping has done lawn and garden businesses little good because many homeowners are confused by the restrictions and don't want to risk being fined.
While her industry suffers under the ban, she said others have been free to carry on business as usual.
"It's a very visible use of water," she said. "You don't see the water being used in factories, industries and homes. ... We feel we're being unfairly targeted."
Hurdles to overcome
On the other hand, there are practical obstacles to extending water-use restrictions to other industries.
Bryan Tolar, spokesman for the Georgia Agribusiness Council, concedes that the poultry industry is a big water user. But he said there's not much the state can do to control it.
"They're required by (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) to use four gallons of water per bird," Tolar said. "How do you get around that?"
Such practical concerns, however, pale in comparison to the potential economic effects of imposing water-use restrictions on such large employers as Georgia's textile, carpet and poultry industries.
"It will take care of the fairness issue. Everybody will feel the pain," Woodworth said. "But it will have devastating effects on hundreds of thousands of people."
On Saturday, Perdue held out some hope that the federal disaster declaration he announced he was seeking from President Bush might head off the need for further restrictions.
The governor is asking the president to temporarily exempt Georgia from the federal Endangered Species Act, which could prompt the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release less water downstream to Florida from Lake Lanier and the other Georgia reservoirs it manages.
But even that relief may be too little too late.
"(Additional restrictions) may have to take place," Perdue said. "We'll be addressing those in the coming days."