ATLANTA - The epic southern drought has bid most of the region adieu after sucking reservoirs dry and shriveling crops for three years.
Only about a third of the South faces moderate or worse drought conditions, roughly half the area that was dry a year ago, and less than 10 percent is in severe drought. In hard-hit South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, homeowners are getting more leeway to water their lawns as utilities relax restrictions.
An unusually wet March that flooded homes around the region also had a silver lining: Forecasters say the drenching helped refill parched lakes and dry water tables, capping a monthslong drought recovery.
'It's been a gradual progression,' said David Stooksbury, Georgia's climatologist. 'It wasn't one event; it improved over three months because of an uptick in rain, and also because this is the prime recharge period' when cool weather limits evaporation and plants absorb less water.
But Stooksbury and others caution that a prolonged dry spell during a hot and humid summer could quickly reverse the gains.
'We're climbing up the fence, but it just takes a long dry spell to knock us right back off,' said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. 'And we don't have a security blanket of a buffer since many areas are just trying to get back to normal.'
In Georgia, the drought affected about 75 percent of the state as recently as October, but Stooksbury said dry conditions are currently only affecting a handful of counties. But those counties also happen to be the basins for two of Georgia's key water supplies: Lakes Lanier and Hartwell. Lanier, the main source of water for Atlanta's 4 million people, is still down by more than 8 feet.
'While we may be in relatively good shape now, when you look at how quickly conditions can change, it gives cause for concern,' he said.
Out of caution, water restrictions haven't been removed completely. Homeowners in the hard-hit northern part of the state can resume the use of soaker hoses on their lawns, but sprinklers and most other types of outdoor watering are still banned there.
In North Carolina, some 202 water utilities still impose voluntary restrictions and 133 have mandatory ones, a significant reduction from the dry season about a year ago, said Woody Yonts, chair of the Drought Management Advisory Council.
In South Carolina, only a handful of counties still have mandatory water restrictions - down from dozens of counties a year ago. State officials say even now they still routinely field questions about why any limitations are still in place.
'We're getting a lot of questions, especially given the rains, about why we are still in drought mode,' said Mark Malsick of the South Carolina Land, Water & Conservation Division. 'But it's a long, long period that started basically in 2006. And we're slowly coming out if it. It takes a long time to recover.'
The drought was a 'wake-up call,' but more long-term changes, such as plugging leaks in county and city water systems and installing low-flow toilets, are badly needed, said Sally Bethea, director of Georgia's Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
'We have to recognize that a lot of the water savings have really been due to temporary restrictions on outdoor watering,' she said. 'We have to focus and invest in permanent savings in water use.'
In downtown Atlanta, 33-year-old Stephen Skibinski said the drought hasn't much changed the way he uses water.
'Some people could care less,' said Skibinski, a former bowling alley manager. 'Others, like me, plan to be here as long as I can. So I don't want to have to take showers on odd and even days.'