Environmental director must send Perdue choices within two weeks.

If Georgia orders watering restrictions in metro Atlanta beyond the current outdoor ban, it will be taking drought-fighting steps that not even arid Southern California or Las Vegas has had to make.

As the state considers restrictions on commercial and industrial users, water experts around the nation say they don’t recall any major U.S. metro area being forced into such dire drought measures in about two decades.

“Most large metropolitan areas have systems in place where they try to be better managers of the resource than that,” said Don Wilhite, who founded the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has been involved in drought responses for at least three decades.

Within two weeks, Georgia Environmental Protection Division director Carol Couch is expected to send Gov. Sonny Perdue options to tighten water restrictions.

Couch has authority to limit water use as necessary with as little as five days’ notice.

State law says, “In the event of a dire emergency, only water for domestic and personal uses, for drinking, cooking, washing, sanitary purposes and all health related activities will be permitted. Farm uses will be given second priority; however, all other usages will be established by the Director.”

State regulations recommend how water users should be ranked in drought contingency plans. The first use to be cut is outdoor recreation; the second is uses such as watering lawns and gardens and the noncommercial washing of cars. Most of those were eliminated under Couch’s Sept. 28 order for metro Atlanta and North Georgia.

The next category to be restricted is commercial and industrial use, followed by farming, and then personal uses.

The last to be restricted would be emergency facilities for essential life support.

Couch’s staff continues to work on the details of what might be proposed to the governor. The report is expected to include an analysis of potential water savings as well as the economic cost of restrictions.

However, there’s little experience in how to impose limits beyond an outdoor watering ban.

A number of small towns have made such moves. But conservation experts and water system officials across the country – from Massachusetts to San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M., to southern Florida – say they can’t recall a major metropolitan area in nation doing so.

However, in 1985, New York City ordered businesses to cut water use by 25 percent and limited the hours offices could run air conditioning.

But such steps are rare.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, southern California shriveled in a deep drought. Watering outdoors was limited to certain days, and restaurants were encouraged to only serve patrons water on request, said Jeff Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to systems that serve 18 million people.

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