ATLANTA -- Drought? What drought?
Georgia officials have said little about the current drought, unlike the last one that received international media attention and even led the governor at the time, Sonny Perdue, to conduct a prayer session on the Capitol grounds.
“There is an aversion at the state level of political discussion to talking about drought,” said Chris Manganiello, policy director for the Athens-based Georgia River Network.
The National Weather Service considers 57 percent of Georgia in drought conditions, 17 percent in the most severe category called “exceptional.”
At its peak three months ago, the drought thrust 28 percent of the state into exceptional drought, including Richmond and Columbia coounties in the Augusta region. Heavy rains during the past 10 days, however, have removed those counties from the most dire category, leaving the areas one drought level lower, in “extreme” drought.
Even with recent rains, 60 percent of stream monitors show reduced water flow, and lakes and ponds are at below-normal levels.
Environmental advocates say Gov. Nathan Deal should call for statewide conservation measures as Perdue did.
“There is a need for some action from the folks at the state level, and we’re not seeing that,” said Sally Bethea, with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper advocacy group.
Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor is not ignoring the situation and is prepared to impose conservation measures if needed.
“Georgia (Environmental Protection Division) is monitoring drought conditions statewide, and while groundwater and stream flow are low in some areas, there are no critical water-supply issues at this time,” Robinson said.
Bethea and other environmentalists claim Deal is downplaying water problems at the request of business interests. They say recruiting employers is harder if the news is full of reports of water shortages.
“Sonny’s Pray for Rain session outside the State Capitol still haunts our state’s boosters, as well as those natives who feel like we already have plenty to live down, and we don’t need help from the governor in adding to the list,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.
Robinson didn’t comment on that, but he did address allegations that Deal moved the post of state climatologist to squelch bad news. For years, a University of Georgia professor, David Stooksbury, held the position, but Deal assigned it to an employee of the Environmental Protection Division, Bill Murphey.
“The shift of the climatologist to EPD means that total control over all drought declarations ... entirely within the control of the EPD, which is
to say, control of the governor’s office,” Herring said. “This administration is not interested in any independent voices that may contradict its policies on any subject.”
Robinson said Murphey isn’t muzzled. And Murphey says he fields plenty of media requests.
“I’ve been kept busy to the max, pretty non-stop,” he said.
After the last drought, companies in the landscaping industry lobbied and got legislation that relaxes some of the restrictions Perdue imposed and requires local governments to get state permission if they feel the need to have tougher rules.
So far, only six communities have taken advantage of the option.
Murphey said the current drought isn’t exactly like the last, which began in 2006 and lasted until 2009. Fires in the Okeefenokee Swamp and high temperatures compounded the lack of rain then.
Another issue at the time was a federal court ruling that resulted in Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta’s primary source of drinking water, falling 20 feet below normal in order to maintain the flow downstream in Florida. The court threatened to limit Atlanta’s use of the lake water.
Perdue said at the time he wanted to demonstrate to the judge that Georgia could conserve water.
Since Deal took office, appeals courts have reversed the state’s legal fortunes.