Atlanta may run out of water

ATLANTA — It was little more than a symbolic victory, as late December rains kept 2007 from being the driest year on record for this city. With precipitation on 10 days of the final two weeks, Atlanta finished the year with 31.85 inches of rain — just 0.05 more than the record low of 31.8 inches established in 1954.

Far more will be needed to alleviate the "exceptional" drought that grips this portion of Georgia, as well as much of the Southeast. For example, the rain brought up the water level only minimally at Lake Lanier, the metropolitan area's main water source and one of the nation's most popular reservoirs for fishing and boating. It had been at an all-time low.

"Anything that stops the level from falling is a good thing," said Rob Holland, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls flows out of Lanier and down the Chattahoochee River, all the way to Apalachicola Bay in Florida. "But we'd like to get a whole lot more."

So would Alabama, where Birmingham had its driest year on record with only 28.86 inches of rain, 25 inches below average. The previous record low was 36.14 inches set in 1931.

Huntsville was even drier, with rainfall 29 inches below average.

"Surrounding areas of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia also experienced extraordinarily dry years," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for The Weather Underground, an Internet weather service.

Masters also warned that the future does not look bright for replenishing the region's water supply.

"Drought is part of the natural cycle in Georgia, and it would not be a surprise to see the drought of 2007 continue until the winter of 2008," he said.

"Although December 2007 saw Atlanta's first above-average month of rainfall since November 2006, the current La Niña atmospheric pattern usually brings below-average rainfall."

Drought conditions seem to have been created by a persistent jet stream that steers storms away from the Southeast and into Texas instead. Plus, tropical storms and hurricanes were nearly absent during 2006 and 2007. By contrast, they accounted for 29 percent of Atlanta's annual rainfall in 2005.

While changing weather patterns and atmospheric influences likely contributed to the conditions, other factors also have led to Atlanta's drought.

"The Lake Lanier reservoir that supplies Atlanta with most of its water was constructed in the 1950s," Masters said. "Since that time, the population of Atlanta has quadrupled, increasing the pressure on the reservoir's limited water.

"Lake Lanier is at its record lowest level, more than 19 feet below average. If the drought continues into the summer of 2008, and no tropical storms arrive to break the drought, Atlanta may run out of water."

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