Some counties in southeast Georgia already meet the definition of a "severe" drought, with conditions so dire they occur only once in 20 years, said Georgia State Climatologist David Stooksbury.
The east central Georgia area surrounding Augusta, however, isn't as bad - yet.
"Augusta is a lot better off than many parts of the state," Dr. Stooksbury said. "Your city would be somewhere between 'mild' and 'moderate' drought."
RAINFALL DEFICITS in severe drought areas are 11 to 12 inches, and metro Atlanta is already more than 9 inches below normal, he said.
Rainfall deficits in Augusta and Athens are around 5 inches but will likely worsen.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Thurmond Lake above Augusta, projects water levels will fall as warmer weather approaches.
"We expect it to continue, and to get worse, unless we get tropical activity," said corps spokesman Billy Birdwell.
The contingency plan for managing drought-stricken lakes calls for reducing flows into the Savannah River when water levels are insufficient to maintain needed supplies.
Watering restrictions are in effect statewide and are mirrored by local policies enforced by utilities departments in Augusta and Columbia County.
Ruth Meade, an education specialist at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park in Richmond County, said gardeners should consider native or drought-resistant species when choosing plants to grow in regions where water conservation is often mandatory.
"Baldcypress is very drought-tolerant and can grow in upland areas," she said. "There are many, many native species that are drought-tolerant."
Dry weather, Dr. Stooksbury said, is measured on several fronts that include soil moisture, stream flows and groundwater levels far beneath the surface.
Areas that are enduring severe droughts are combating problems ranging from crop failure to forest fires that have devoured thousands of acres.
ACROSS THE STATE, people are wondering how they can save their plants. Unless they're careful, they'll wipe them out instead, said David Linvill, a county agent for the Chatham County Extension Service.
"We kill more plants by improper watering and over-watering than anything else," he said.
He offered several tips.
"Don't fertilize plants," Mr. Linvill said, "or fertilize very sparingly. Plants are like a lot of Americans; they can afford to miss a few meals."
When fertilizer is applied, Mr. Linvill noted, "you're telling the plant: 'Get ready to grow. Here comes water.' When it doesn't come, they're in trouble."
Mr. Linvill also advised avoiding pruning, if possible, because that also stimulates growth.
"Use common sense," he said. "You likely want to prune those azaleas in front of your house so they'll look nice. But if you have some in your back yard that few people will see anyway, why not let them go?"
One complication for homeowners is that Georgians are being asked to conserve water. On April 19, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division declared a statewide "level two" drought response, permitting watering only on designated days.
Outdoor watering is allowed at odd-numbered addresses only from midnight to 10 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Even-numbered and unnumbered addresses should water only during those hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
A danger with that scheme, Mr. Linvill said, is that "people get it into their heads that it's their day to water and that they might miss their next day, so they better go ahead and do it, even if they really don't need to."
And that's a "terrible idea," said Mr. Linvill, who added that infrequent "big old deep waterings" are far better than numerous quick ones.
"Lots of people just don't know how to irrigate properly," he said with a sigh.
They'd better learn. Dr. Stooksbury expects "little if any relief from the drought ... in the foreseeable future."
Doug Wyatt, of Morris News Service, contributed to this report.
AUGUSTA-RICHMOND COUNTY AND COLUMBIA COUNTY WATERING GUIDELINES:
* Residents with even numbered addresses may water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
* Residents with odd-numbered addresses may water on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
* No outside watering is permitted on Mondays.
* Watering is allowed from midnight to 10 a.m. only.
Source: Augusta Utilities Department, Columbia County Waterworks