ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered north Georgia businesses and utilities to cut water usage by 10 percent on Tuesday in a move designed to conserve more of the state's dwindling water supply during an epic drought.
Perdue calls the order a 'first step' to reducing water usage during the drought, and encouraged Georgia residents to treat their drying lawns and dirty cars as a 'badge of honor.'
'In this unprecedented drought, we all have to pitch in and find ways to conserve our most precious resource,' Perdue said.
The cuts apply to the 61 north Georgia counties that were declared a 'Level 4' drought in September. The order leaves it up to each system to decide how to restrict water, and exempts agricultural users.
Almost one-third of the Southeast is covered by an 'exceptional' drought - the worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is smack in the middle of the affected region, which includes most of Tennessee, Alabama and the northern half of Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.
With a dry winter in the forecast and less than 80 days of stored water left in Lake Lanier, the north Georgia reservoir that supplies water to about 3 million residents, the state has already ordered restrictions and Perdue warned more could be on the way.
'I encourage all Georgians to make their dry lawns and dirty cars a badge of honor,' Perdue said. 'By making individual conservation efforts, along with reasonable solutions from our federal government, we can collectively help to ensure that our water supply is sufficient.'
Virtually all outdoor watering was banned throughout the northern part of the state in September, and Perdue declared a disaster in more than half of Georgia's 159 counties.
The state has also appealed to the federal government for help.
The governor asked President Bush on Saturday to order less water be released from federal reservoirs in Georgia and declare the region a federal disaster area - a move that was seconded on Tuesday by the Georgia delegation in Washington.
'With a potential crisis on the horizon, federal, state, and local government must work together to ensure that millions of Georgians have water to drink, water to live,' said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, in a letter to Bush.
A disaster declaration would be an unusual move by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which said the last time the federal government made such a declaration for a drought was in 1977.
'It's a very unique request so it's one that we want to take a good look at,' said Aaron Walker, a FEMA spokesman.
The drought has heightened tensions among Georgia, Alabama and Florida, which already disagree on how to manage the region's limited water supply. Florida has complained the state is not sending enough water downstream to protect federally threatened mussels, and Alabama has urged the Army Corps of Engineers to release more water to help his state cope with the dry conditions.
The new water reductions would be in place on November 1, and the state Environmental Protection Division will impose fines on those who flout the law.
Environmentalists welcomed the restrictions, but questioned why the cuts weren't ordered earlier.
'This seems like a more proactive step than trying to blame a bunch of mussels for a drought,' said Jennette Gayer, a policy advocate with Environment Georgia.
'But if we had really been serious about implementing conservation methods a couple of years ago or even a couple of years ago, we would have been able to avoid this pain.'