ATLANTA – With the South in the grip of an epic drought and its largest city holding less than a 90-day supply of water, officials are scrambling to deal with the worst-case scenario: What if Atlanta's faucets really do go dry?
So far, no real backup plan exists. And there are no quick fixes among suggested solutions, which include piping water in from rivers in neighboring states, building more regional reservoirs, setting up a statewide recycling system or even desalinating water from the Atlantic Ocean.
"It's amazing that things have come to this," said Ray Wiedman, owner of an Atlanta landscaper business. "Everybody knew the growth was coming. We haven't had a plan for all the people coming here?"
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue seems to be pinning his hopes on a two-pronged approach: urging water conservation and reducing water flowing out of federally controlled lakes. Perdue's office on Friday asked a Florida federal judge to force the Army Corps of Engineers to curb the amount of water draining from Georgia reservoirs into Alabama and Florida. And Georgia's environmental protection director is drafting proposals for more water restrictions.
But that may not be enough to stave off the water crisis. More than a quarter of the Southeast is covered by an "exceptional" drought - the National Weather Service's worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is smack in the middle of the affected region, which extends like a dark cloud over most of Tennessee, Alabama and the northern half of Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.
State officials warn that Lake Lanier, a 38,000-acre north Georgia reservoir that supplies more than 3 million residents with water, is already less than three months from depletion. Smaller reservoirs are dropping even lower, forcing local governments to consider rationing.
State water managers say there is more water available in the lake's reserves. But tapping into it would require the use of barges, emergency pumps and longer water lines. And some lawmakers fear if the lake is drained that low, it may be impossible to refill.
The Corps, which manages the water in the region, stresses there's no reason to think Atlanta will soon run out of water. "We're so far away from that, nobody's doing a contingency plan," said Major Daren Payne, the deputy commander of the Corps' Mobile office. "Quite frankly, there's enough water left to last for months. We've got a serious drought, there's no doubt about it, anytime you deplete your entire storage pool and tap into the reserve."
But, he said, any calls to stockpile bottled water would be "very premature."
Still, some academics and politicians are proposing contingency plans in case the situation worsens.
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said the region should explore piping in additional sources of water - possibly from the Tennessee or Savannah rivers. She even suggested desalinating sea water from Georgia's Atlantic coast.
"We need to look beyond our borders," she said. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who was defeated in 2002, told reporters this week that he had planned to offer grants to fix leaks that waste millions of gallons of water each year. He also said he planned to build three new state reservoirs in north and west Georgia to help insulate the state from a future water crisis. But those plans died when he left office.
"Los Angeles added 1 million people without increasing their water supply," he told reporters. "And if Los Angeles can do it, I'll tell you Georgia can."
It seems the idea of building state reservoirs is gaining steam in the Legislature as Georgia's battle with the Corps over federal reservoirs heats up.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he favors building more regional reservoirs shared by multiple communities to harness the 50 trillion gallons of water that fall over Georgia each year.
"You can see that if we can just manage the rainfall and utilize that and make sure that we have abundant storage for it, we can take care of our needs well into the future," said Cagle, a Republican from Gainesville, the largest city on Lake Lanier.
Some academics say Georgia should start using more "purple water" - waste water that is partially treated and can be used for irrigation, fire fighting and uses other than drinking. That would conserve lake water and help replenish the water-supply system.
Such measures could make Georgia "drought-proof," said Todd Rasmussen, a professor of hydrology and water resources at the University of Georgia.
"People have got to start thinking in this direction," said Rasmussen. "You can't wear out water. It's clearly an opportunity that needs to be explored."
The drought has led to extreme conservation measures.
Virtually all outdoor watering across was banned across the northern half of the state, restaurants were asked to serve water only at a customer's request and the governor called on Georgians to take shorter showers. Carol Couch, the state's environmental director, said it's "very likely" new limits on water usage are needed.
Scorching summer temperatures and a drier-than-normal hurricane season fueled the drought. State climatologist David Stooksbury said it will take months of above average rainfall to replenish the system. He is now predicting the drought could worsen if "La Nina" conditions develop and bring little winter rainfall.
"I tell people we need 40 days and 40 nights," he said with a sigh.