County, utilities try to cut water use

COVINGTON - Newton County and local utilities will focus on public education and awareness in initial efforts to meet the governor's mandate to cut water consumption by 10 percent.

County officials met Wednesday with representatives of water utilities operating within the county or supplied with water from Lake Varner or City Pond to discuss how to further reduce consumption, according to a press release issued by the county.

Based on an average water production of 9.7 million gallons per day for the period of December 2006 through March 2007, Newton County is required to reduce average water production by 970,000 gallons per day, a task that will be "daunting and difficult," according to Newton County's Water Resources Director Karl Kelley.

"Conservation efforts are going to result in some savings. Because we're in such good shape and because we've already cut production, we probably are going to have a difficult time achieving a 10 percent reduction. That doesn't stop us from making a good attempt to try and do that," Kelley said.

Utilities present at the meeting included the cities of Covington, Porterdale, Oxford, Mansfield and Newborn, along with representatives from the Newton County, Walton County and Jasper County water and sewerage authorities.

All representatives said they have already implemented conservation efforts, ranging from public education to enhanced enforcement to locking irrigation meters.

The group agreed to aim its efforts at public education and awareness by taking the following steps:

' providing a comprehensive list of water conservation tips to all customers, primarily through inserts in water bills, as well as media advertisements;

' offering additional tips and information relating to the drought and water conservation on each utility's Web site;

' highlighting water consumption on water bills to increase consumer awareness of water usage;

' providing a weekly water usage report card to media outlets to maintain public awareness of conservation efforts;

' asking for assistance from chambers of commerce in educating membership on water conservation opportunities;

' erecting roadside signs to increase citizen awareness of conservation efforts;

' contacting high usage customers to coordinate conservation efforts;

' and locking out irrigation meters.

The group will meet again the first week in December to determine if their efforts have been successful.

Last week, Gov. Sonny Perdue mandated that north Georgia utilities cut water usage by 10 percent, effective today.

Perdue's order applies to the 61 north Georgia counties that were declared a Level 4 drought in September. The order leaves it up to each system to decide how to restrict water and does not give a compliance deadline.

The order also does not specify repercussions of failure to comply, Kelley said.

"The EPD has promised enforcement action, but we don't know what form that will take," he said.

Newton County is required to report daily production numbers on a weekly basis to EPD, according to the press release.

Almost one-third of the Southeast is covered by an "exceptional drought," the worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is smack in the middle of the affected region, which includes most of Tennessee, Alabama and the northern half of Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky.

With a dry winter in the forecast, the state has already ordered restrictions and Perdue warned more could be on the way.

"I encourage all Georgians to make their dry lawns and dirty cars a badge of honor," Perdue said. "By making individual conservation efforts, along with reasonable solutions from our federal government, we can collectively help to ensure that our water supply is sufficient."

Virtually all outdoor watering was banned throughout the northern part of the state in September, and Perdue declared a disaster in more than half of Georgia's 159 counties.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.

SideBar: Groups cite poor planning for water crisis

ATLANTA - Poor planning by state and regional decision-makers is as much to blame for the critical water shortage gripping North Georgia as Mother Nature or the federal government, environmental advocates charged Wednesday.

The Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of 150 organizations, challenged recent statements by Gov. Sonny Perdue and others that mandatory limits on water use have been forced upon the region because of the drought and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' massive releases of water from depleted Lake Lanier to protect endangered fish downstream in Florida.

A resolution adopted last month by the Atlanta Regional Commission's governing board asserted that metro Atlanta's dramatic growth has had no effect on the current situation.

"The water crisis in Atlanta is largely due to mismanagement ... not mussels and endangered fish," Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said during a news conference outside of the Capitol. "Wise planning could have lessened the severity."

Specifically, the environmental groups went after the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, created by the General Assembly in 2001 to develop and put into effect water plans for a 16-county region.

The coalition released a "report card" slapping the district with four F's and two D's on a variety of water planning subjects.

The failing marks were for allowing the proliferation of septic tanks, which don't return water to rivers as promptly as central sewers, for not encouraging more homeowners to install low-flow plumbing fixtures and for not being aggressive enough in urging water utilities to fix leaky pipes or set tiered rates that punish high-volume customers.

The district received D's for not doing enough to encourage homeowners to put in less water-intensive landscaping and for failing to curb metro Atlantans' high average daily use of water compared to customers in other cities.

"This student seriously needs improvement," Bethea said, sticking with the report card theme. "It's time for less talk and a lot more action."

But Pat Stevens, senior environmental planner for the ARC, said the metro district already has made great strides in conserving the region's water. The ARC provides the water district's staff.

Stevens said most of metro Atlanta's population is served by water utilities that have adopted tiered rates to reward customers who use less water and that have leak detection programs.

"Gwinnett (County) just spent a tremendous amount of money checking every pipe in their system," she said.

Stevens said most of the water systems in the metro area also offer kits showing homeowners how to retrofit low-flow showers and faucets.

"I understand the impatience now because of the drought," she said. "But we are making progress, and we have plans to accomplish a lot more."

Besides attacking the metro water district, speakers at Wednesday's news conference also criticized Georgia's political leaders for not doing enough to foster water conservation.

Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, said the influence of "special interests" - specifically, the real estate industry - in 2004 quashed legislation that would have required homeowners to install low-flow plumbing fixtures before they could sell their properties.

"Our leaders have caved in to those interests," he said.

Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, the bill's chief sponsor, said recently that she plans to reintroduce it during this winter's legislative session.