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Water conservation still important, officials say
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By Jennifer Cannon
University of Georgia

Water levels are up and state officials say the long-term drought is all but over. But, they add, Georgians can't afford to abandon water conservation.

"I'm removing EPD imposed restrictions because we're no longer confronted with a drought emergency situation," said Harold Reheis, director of the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

However, he said, "it's important for all of us to recognize the environmental and economic benefits that derive from wise and conservative use of our shared waters."

Above-normal rains that started in September are improving all five of the indicators used to define water conditions: rainfall, soil moisture, stream flows, lake levels and groundwater level.

Groundwater levels

Of the five, state climatologist David Stooksbury said groundwater levels are recovering at the slowest rate. But they're improving, he said, according to U.S. Geological Survey monitoring wells.

Stooksbury, a biological and agricultural engineering professor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said most of Georgia got little rainfall, though, in the first two weeks of 2003.

And the old adage that Georgia is only two weeks away from a drought, he said, is true. Depending on when in the growing season it happens, a lack of rain over two weeks can cause significant yield or quality loss in Georgia farm crops.

Landscapes can be much hardier.

Turf tougher than you think

"Garden vegetables and flowers need water frequently," said Jim Hook, a University of Georgia soil and water management scientist. "But most lawn grasses and established shrubbery don't need nearly as much as some homeowners put out."

Hook's research shows that some grasses -- centipede, particularly -- can survive without water as long as six weeks without suffering and then green up quickly after just one rainfall.

"Healthy lawns help cool excess heat from paving and rooftops and visually soothe us," Hook said. "But rainfall can provide most of the water lawns need to survive."

He adds that as other states have learned, Georgians will have to decide how much water will be used to keep lawns perpetually green and how much will be used to support future economic growth.

Making sense

Hook said using water-saving measures makes both conservation and economic sense.

"Paying to pump water from reservoirs, through the system and onto areas that don't need it is just wasting money as well as water," he said. "In addition, using excess water increases the infrastructure needed to supply that water -- larger reservoirs, larger water treatment plants and more powerful pumping systems."

Using water carefully can not only lower your water bill, but can cut the taxes that go toward the water infrastructure.

Water decisions

Georgians make water-conservation and economics decisions every day. Will it be worth it to turn the water on? For the homeowner, that may depend on whether you're willing to pay a higher water bill to keep your lawn green. For farmers, the question may be more like whether the cost to run the irrigation system will be worth the potential increase the crop's yield or quality?

Hook said all Georgia water users need to keep the limited resource and other users in mind.

"While it appears that production agriculture uses a lot of water," he said, "you have to keep in mind that it's only a small fraction of the annual rainfall that runs out of the state each year. But farmers bear the responsibility of sharing that water with other users and with those downstream."

You can find more information about using water wisely at http://www.georgiadrought.org.

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