CUMMING - Gov. Sonny Perdue traveled to the edge of rapidly diminishing Lake Lanier Saturday to declare a state of emergency in 85 Georgia counties due to the worsening drought.
With the depleted lake as a backdrop, the governor also announced that he is asking President Bush to declare the state a major disaster area.
Perdue said that would give the president the power to temporarily exempt Georgia from the federal Endangered Species Act.
The state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been fighting over the agency's releases of water from Lake Lanier to protect endangered mussels downstream in Florida, culminating in a lawsuit that Georgia filed on Friday.
"Drought is a natural disaster, and we are experiencing the single worst drought in Georgia's history," the governor said. "On top of that, we are mired in a manmade disaster of federal bureaucracy.
"We're not making any monetary request of the federal government. We're asking the federal government to act in the best interests of people and not animals."
With the drought well into its second year, the state imposed partial outdoor water-use restrictions last spring, limiting homeowners and businesses to watering during certain times of day on certain days of the week.
After a dry summer and with forecasts calling for a dry winter as well, the Environmental
Protection Division clamped down tighter late last month, ordering a total ban on outdoor watering across the northern third of the state.
While that has helped reduce water demand, EPD Director Carol Couch said last week that she was preparing to present Perdue options for further restrictions early this week, raising fears that major industries could be the next targets.
Meanwhile, the Army Corps and the endangered mussels the agency is protecting have been the brunt of heavy criticism.
The state first asked the Corps to reduce releases of water from the reservoirs it manages in Georgia - including Lanier - then filed suit in federal court in Jacksonville, Fla.
Also last week, Georgia's entire U.S. House delegation joined in sponsoring legislation that would allow the Corps to waive the Endangered Species Act during severe droughts.
The state claims that the Corps' releases are letting roughly twice the water flow downstream that would be provided by nature under drought conditions that have left Lake Lanier with just 80 days of readily available water supply.
Also, Georgia's lawyers argue that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never stated that the volume of water the Corps is releasing is necessary to protect endangered mussels and Gulf sturgeon.
"What we're learning from this is what a blunt weapon the Endangered Species Act has become," said U.S. Rep. John Linder, R-Duluth, who joined Perdue at Saturday's announcement. "Judges and bureaucrats can decide mussels are more important than our children and grandchildren."
Officials in the Corps' Mobile office, which manages the Georgia reservoirs, say they're simply enforcing federal law, and the water they're releasing not only benefits endangered species but downstream communities and industries.
Couch said the governor's emergency declaration will create a uniform command of state agencies that will engage in disaster planning, just as state officials would do if Georgia had been hit by a tornado or hurricane.
"This is a natural disaster," she said. "It just didn't happen overnight."
A sign-carrying Cumming man who attended Saturday's announcement made that same connection.
Karl Funderburg's sign read, "Katrina, Lanier: Another Colossal Government Failure."
But after the governor finished speaking, Funderburg said his ire was aimed more at the Army Corps than Perdue.
"I think the governor is right on," Funderburg said. "I just wish this had happened sooner ... If the Army Corps can't be stopped without going to the president and declaring a state of emergency, something's wrong."
The drought emergency declared by Perdue includes 24 counties in Middle and Southwest Georgia that are not subject to the total outdoor watering ban the state ordered last month.
However, the section of Georgia now in the grips of an "exceptional" drought, the worst category of drought, extends through most of those counties as well as the northern third of the state.
SideBar: At a glance
Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency Saturday in the following 85 Georgia counties due to the drought. The list includes (in capital letters) 24 counties in Southwest Georgia that are not subject to the outdoor watering ban imposed late last month across the northern third of the state: