Wed, Oct 17, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Southern US faces severe drought threat: specialists

ALARMING For a good part of the past 18 months, absence of rain and high temperatures have created a situation that threatens a great swath of the country

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ATLANTA, GEORGIA

For the first time in more than 100 years, much of the southeastern US has reached the most severe category of drought, climatologists said on Monday, creating an emergency so serious that some cities are just months away from running out of water.

In North Carolina, Governor Michael Easley asked residents on Monday to stop using water for any purpose "not essential to public health and safety."

He warned that he would soon have to declare a state of emergency if voluntary efforts fell short.

"Now I don't want to have to use these powers," Easley told a meeting of mayors and other city officials. "As leaders of your communities, you know what works best at the local level. I am asking for your help."

RESERVOIR CRISIS

Officials in the central North Carolina town of Siler City said that without rain they were 80 days from draining the Lower Rocky River Reservoir, which supplies water for the town's 8,200 people.

In the Atlanta metropolitan area, which has more than 4 million people, worst-case scenarios showed that the city's main source of water, Lake Lanier, could be drained dry in 90 to 121 days.

The hard numbers have shocked the Southeast into action, even as many people wondered why things had seemed to get so bad so quickly.

DIRECTIVES

Last week, Siler City, North Carolina, Mayor Charles Turner declared a water shortage emergency and ordered each "household, business and industry" to reduce water usage by 50 percent. Penalties for not complying range from stiff fines to the termination of water service.

"It's really alarming," said Janice Terry, co-owner of the Best Foods cafeteria in Siler City.

To curtail water use, Best Foods has swapped its dishes for paper plates and foam cups.

Most controversially, it has stopped offering tap water to customers, making them buy US$0.69 bottles of water instead.

"We've had people walk out," Terry said. "They get mad when they can't get a free glass of water."

DISASTERS

For the better part of 18 months, cloudless blue skies and high temperatures have shriveled crops and bronzed lawns from North Carolina to Alabama, quietly creating what David Stooksbury, the state climatologist of Georgia, has dubbed "the Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters," in reference to the actor.

"People pay attention to hurricanes," Stooksbury said. "They pay attention to tornadoes and earthquakes. But a drought will sneak up on you."

The situation has become so bad that by all of Stooksbury's measures -- the percentage of moisture in the soil, the flow rate of rivers, centimeters of rain -- this drought has broken every record in Georgia's history.

At a news conference last week, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin begged people in her city to conserve water.

"Please, please, please do not use water unnecessarily," Franklin said. "This is not a test."

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