Oct. 15, 2007 — -- An unprecedented drought stretching across the southeastern United States has forced some of the region's largest cities to declare water emergencies.
The situation has become so serious that officials in Atlanta, where rainfall totals are more than 16 inches below normal, said they could run out of drinking water in a matter of weeks.
"Without any intervention, we are likely to run out of water in three months," said Carol Couch, the director of the Environmental Protection Division in Georgia.
The drought has been sucking the city and its water sources dry.
"We have actually classified it as an exceptional drought," said David Stooksbury, a climatologist at Georgia State. "Basically [it is] the type of drought that we expect to see about once in 100 years."
Most of Atlanta's water supply comes from two lakes. Lake Lanier is the main source, but the drought has affected it.
The city's second source for water is Lake Allatoona, which should be about 16 feet higher than it currently is and continues losing a foot a week. Docks used for boats sit high and dry, hundreds of feet from the water's edge.
At the heart of the drought drama is the question of how state and federal officials ration the shrinking water supply.
Georgia officials have threatened legal action if the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers does not drastically cut the amount of water it releases from state lakes for agricultural and industrial use. Much of that released water ends up in Florida and Alabama, where officials are likely to oppose any additional decrease in the flow of water. Florida officials say low water levels already threaten the survival of endangered river mussels.
The corps already came under fire when it accidentally released 22 billion extra gallons of water from Lake Lanier last June, just as the region was sinking into a deep drought.
The dry weather has caused the state governors in the region to request that residents cut back on their water usage.
In the Atlanta area, while the conservation measures inside the home are still voluntary, the entire state is under a mandatory outdoor watering ban.
But some officials are talking about imposing stricter restrictions, such as limiting water at restaurants and car washes down the road if things don't improve.
The strain of water restrictions already has hit some businesses, such as landscapers, hard.
"The water ban is not going to resolve the problem, and it's foolish to think that that's the only thing that is going to rescue us," said one Atlanta-area landscaper.
But Atlanta isn't the only southern city feeling the heat from the extended dry conditions.
Tennessee has imposed widespread water restrictions. Chattanooga's rainfall is 17 inches below normal for the year. At least one Tennessee city has stopped issuing new water permits for developments until concerns over the water supply ease.
People in North Carolina are also under water restrictions. Officials have even urged people to conserve water by wearing their exercise clothes into the shower and washing them there.
Greensboro, N.C., imposed new water restrictions banning homeowners or businesses from using sprinklers on their grass. But some are complaining that so far golf courses and athletic fields have been spared an outright ban on sprinkling.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.