ATLANTA - Georgians in the state's drought-ravaged northern third will be able to splash in swimming pools and sprinkle their lawns under an easing of outdoor watering restrictions announced by Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The governor partially lifted limits on water use in landscaping and exempted outdoor pools altogether from restrictions the state imposed last fall in 61 counties.
"Swim, kids, swim!" Perdue declared Wednesday during a news conference at his office.
The easing of water restrictions overshadowed several other water-related developments at the Capitol on Wednesday, including the governor's signing of Georgia's first statewide water management plan during an afternoon ceremony.
Earlier in the day, the Senate passed legislation aimed at speeding up improvements to existing reservoirs and the construction of new ones.
And a senator introduced a resolution calling for correcting the state's "flawed" boundary with Tennessee, a step that could lead Georgia to assert a legal claim to water from the Tennessee River.
Whether swimming pools would be allowed to open this year had become a concern in recent weeks, as homeowner association fees were coming due and youth swim leagues were organizing for the summer.
A group of Senate Republicans mostly from metro Atlanta had introduced a bill to prohibit the state from closing public, private or community pools.
Carol Couch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, told members of a House committee Wednesday that the stagnant water often left in closed pools would pose a potential health hazard by drawing mosquitoes.
She said not having access to pools also would mean one less healthy outlet for children during their annual break from classes.
"What are we going to do with our kids in the summer?" she asked. "That's not an inconsequential thing."
Couch said the approximately 6,500 public pools and 92,000 private pools in the 61 counties use an estimated 7 million gallons of water per day, a relative drop in the bucket to the more than 800 million gallons of water consumed each day in the region overall.
"It's a small amount relative to the benefits of public health and public welfare," she said.
Easing the outdoor watering restrictions will put more of a dent in the water supply, an estimated 80 million gallons a day.
But Perdue's order includes limits aimed at encouraging homeowners from returning to the wasteful habits practiced before the drought.
Homeowners will be allowed to water only by hand for 25 minutes a day between midnight and 10 a.m. on an odd-even schedule.
Odd-numbered addresses can water on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. For homeowners with even-numbered addresses, watering will be allowed on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
Also, the current exemption that allows watering new professionally installed landscaping for 30 days will be changed to permit watering for three days a week, again using an odd/even schedule, for up to 10 weeks.
However, homeowners wishing to take advantage of that exemption must register with an online program designed to show them how to water conservatively.
The program will be on the Urban Agricultural Council's Web site at www.urbanagcouncil.com.
North Georgia's landscaping industry has lost 30,000 jobs since the total ban on outdoor watering took effect, resulting in a loss to the economy of about $2 billion, said Gary Black, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.
He said landscapers were looking for relief soon in order to save this year's planting season.
"The goal is to restore confidence in the marketplace," Black said. "The producers need to know they can produce ... and the retailers don't purchase unless they know they can sell."
The easing of restrictions drew criticism from environmental advocates, who noted that Perdue's announcements came just one day after a federal court ruling that could significantly reduce the amount of water metro Atlanta is allowed to withdraw from Lake Lanier.
Also, weather forecasters are predicting another dry spring and summer.
"Conservation needs to be ramped up, not reduced," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. "Pretending you don't have a problem is usually not the way to solve it."
But Perdue said reducing water-use restrictions in a limited way strikes the right balance between the need to conserve and protecting the state's economy and quality of life.
The reservoir bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate is aimed not at the current drought but at the next dry period.
It contains provisions to speed up the permitting process for reservoir projects and commits the state to help local governments pay for dam improvements and new reservoirs.
"This is not a silver bullet," said Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, the bill's sponsor. "It's just a streamlining of the permitting process and something to help with the funding."
A longer-shot new water supply for Georgia would involve tapping into the Tennessee River. The first step toward making that possible would be moving Georgia's border about a mile north, where Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, said it was until a surveying mistake back in 1818.
"It's never too late to right a wrong," Shafer told his Senate colleagues.
Shafer introduced a resolution Wednesday providing for the appointment of joint boundary commissions to resurvey and correctly mark Georgia's borders with Tennessee and North Carolina.
While the measure doesn't explicitly assert Georgia's right to share the river's water, the corrected boundary would extend into the river.