Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia on Saturday declared a state of emergency in the northern region of the state as its water resources dwindled to alarmingly low levels.
" We are experiencing the single worst drought in North Georgia's history. I have declared an emergency in 85 of Georgia's counties due to the threat of water supply in the northern part of our state, " Perdue said on the shore of a receding Lake Lanier.
He also sent a letter to President Bush, asking him to declare north Georgia a major disaster area.
Rainfall in the area is about 15 inches below normal for the year. Lake Lanier, the main water source for the Atlanta area's 5 million residents, is nearing historically low levels.
Perdue said the state would seek an injunction forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow of water from the lake.
"The Corps is sending 3.2 billion gallons of water downstream out of Georgia reservoirs every day," Perdue said. "That's enough to fill three-and-a- half Olympic-size swimming pools every minute."
The Corps -- under an agreement reached in the 1980s with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- releases 5,000 feet of water per second from the dam between the manmade lake and the Chattahoochee River.
The released water is used by power plants in Florida and Alabama and helps keep endangered mussels and sturgeon alive.
"What we've learned from this is what a blunt weapon the Endangered Species Act has become, where some obscure bureaucrat in Fish and Wildlife and some obscure judge can decide that mussels are more important than our children and grandchildren," observed caustically Republican John Linder.
The state, stricken by months of drought, had confirmed Friday that it would sue the Army Corps of Engineers., who concede there is only about a three-month supply of water left in Lake Lanier, which is 15 feet below its capacity.
But they sidestepped the governor's demand to stop draining reservoirs Wednesday, setting up a legal showdown between the federal government and state officials who blame the policy for intensifying a record drought.
The Corps said in a letter to the state's environmental commissioner that it was abiding by federal guidelines but that officials were now "exploring possible drought contingency options."
Interestingly the drought has also heightened tensions between Georgia on the one hand and Alabama and Florida on the other.
Florida has complained the state is not sending enough water downstream to protect mussels, and the state's environmental chief sent a letter to the Corps on Wednesday that warned reducing the water flow "would severely impact Florida's natural resources."
Alabama Governor Bob Riley has urged the Corps to release more water from Georgia's lakes to help his state cope with the dry conditions.
"People in Georgia have been hurting. They've lost businesses, jobs and income. And we don't want to see any more harm come to anyone, but we have obligations to manage this basin," said Maj. Daren Payne, the deputy commander of the Corps' office in Mobile, Alabama.
State officials have said they were unprepared for the severity of the drought, compounded by scorching heat and a drier-than-normal hurricane season. As the drought worsened, Georgia politicians claimed the Corps' stubborn agenda intensified the water shortage.
But environmentalists contend the state should have been better prepared for a water shortage, which they say is an inevitable result of decades of pro-growth policy that led to metro Atlanta's sprawl.
Meantime Georgia's rainfall deficit has caused a mosquito population explosion that has led to a rise in the number of West Nile virus cases reported in the state.
The virus is carried by the southern house mosquito, which breeds in storm drains and thrives in polluted water, said Elmer Gray, an entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Mosquitoes are vectors of WNV, but birds are carriers. The mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds. Infected mosquitoes then transmit the virus to humans through their bites.
Last year, nine cases of West Nile virus were reported in Georgia, he said. So far, 24 cases have been confirmed this year. And Gray is confident this number will keep rising.
"We haven't had much heavy rain this summer to flush out the storm drains (and wash away the mosquito larvae)," Gray said. "If we'd been hit by hurricanes and heavy rains, the storm drains would be flushed out, but buckets and tires would be full for the Asian tiger mosquitoes to breed in."
Asian tiger mosquitoes are what Gray refers to as "nuisance" mosquitoes, but they are not vectors of WNV. They show up at backyard picnics and other social gatherings. This mosquito breeds in standing water found in old tires, buckets or anything that will hold rainwater.
"These mosquitoes are found in urban areas such as Atlanta and Athens," he said. "If you live on the coast or your property backs up to a swamp, you could have one of several species."
Gray's colleague Nancy Hinkle, also a UGA entomologist, says homeowners have actually helped Asian tiger mosquitoes overcome the lack of rainfall.
"Because people have irrigated their lawns more, water-holding vessels such as flowerpots, buckets and cans around homes have been regularly collecting water," Hinkle said. "People recognize the value of every drop of rain, and more and more people have fashioned rain-collection devices."
Storing rainwater to use to irrigate outdoor plants is wise. But it creates perfect backyard mosquito habitats, she said.
"Unfortunately, rain-collecting containers tend to support large populations of some of our most pestiferous mosquito species," Hinkle said. "In fact, the southern house mosquito is also known as the rain-barrel mosquito."
Also cattlemen will have a tough time feeding their herds this winter, say University of Georgia livestock specialists.
"It's a very precarious situation right now," said Curt Lacy, a livestock economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "I don't see how we will not have to liquidate cows due to the lack of hay supplies we have in the state going into this winter."
During the warm summer, cattle typically get enough nourishment when they graze pasture grass. In good, wet summers, the grass grows more than the cattle can eat. That extra grass is cut, baled and stored to feed cattle as hay in the winter, when pastures don't grow.
But this wasn't a good, wet summer. It was a hot, extremely dry one, Lacy said, that baked pastures and cut hay production across the state.
On average, one cow can eat 30 pounds of hay per day in the winter.
Hay supplies will be tight across the Southeast, too, Lacy said. The drought hit Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and the Carolinas as hard as Georgia or worse this summer. Hay prices keep climbing, too. A ton costs $82 now, 70 percent more than a decade ago.
Cattlemen plant cold-tolerant forages such as oats and rye for cattle to eat along with the hay in winter. But La Niņa conditions have developed along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. This event typically brings a warmer, drier fall and winter to Gulf Coast states.
The Gulf Coast region of the United States comprises the coasts of states which border the Gulf of Mexico. The states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are known as the Gulf States.