Published on 11/13/08

Drought tightens its grip on north Georgia

By David Emory Stooksbury
University of Georgia

ATHENS, GA. - Drought conditions continue to grow harsher across north Georgia. Water levels in reservoirs and streams are at or near record lows across most of the region. Groundwater levels are also low.

Lake Lanier, a primary water source for metro Atlanta, is at a record low for mid-November. The previous mid-November record low was at this time last year.

Hartwell, Russell and Clarks Hill lakes in the Savannah River basin are at record low levels. Both Russell and Clarks Hill have less than two feet of usable pool left. Hartwell water levels are dropping very quickly in order to meet downstream needs. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers reports that the remaining conservation pool for Hartwell is 34 percent, for Russell it’s 32 percent and for Clarks Hill it’s 10 percent.

Even with normal seasonal rains, it’s doubtful that Lanier, Hartwell, Russell or Clarks Hill lakes will fully recover this winter.

Major rivers that are at record low flows for mid-November include the Etowah River at Canton, the Chattahoochee River near Cornelia, Chestatee River near Dahlonega, the Middle Oconee River at Athens, the Broad River near Bell, the Little River near Washington, the Oconee River at Dublin and the Altamaha River near Baxley.

Because of the extremely low stream flows, many counties in north Georgia have had their drought level classifications changed to a more intense level.

Exceptional drought – the most severe drought level - now exists north and east of a line running through Lincoln, Wilkes, Olgethorpe, Oconee, Barrow, Gwinnett, Hall, Forsyth, Cherokee, Pickens, Gilmer and Fannin counties. This region includes Athens, Gainesville and Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

Extreme drought conditions are now in Columbia, Richmond, McDuffie, Glascock, Taliaferro, Warren, Hancock, Greene, Morgan, Walton, Gwinnett, north Fulton and Cherokee counties. The extreme conditions are also in parts of Pickens, Gilmer, Fannin and Murray counties.

Most of the remaining area north of the fall line is in severe drought. Heard, Troup, Harris and most of Talbot and Muscogee counties are in moderate drought.

The ocean-atmosphere system is in what climatologist call a neutral pattern, meaning it is in neither an El Niño nor a La Niña pattern. Historically, neutral-pattern winters have been very variable.

There is no strong indication that the winter of 2008-09 will be abnormally wet or dry. The trend over the past 15 years, however, has been for dry winters.

There is also no strong indication that the winter will be abnormally warm or cool. An important historical observation is that every major devastating freeze has occurred during a neutral-pattern winter.

With recent winters being our best guide, the most prudent response is to assume that this winter will tend toward the dry side. Water conservation efforts should continue.

Additional drought information and updates can be found at Automated weather data across Georgia is at Daily rainfall data is at U.S. Geological Survey data is at Water conservation information is available at

(David Emory Stooksbury is the state climatologist and a professor in engineering and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia.)

David Emory Stooksbury is associate professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.