Water systems in drought-stricken northern Georgia have exceeded a state mandate to reduce the region's consumption by 10 percent, an early sign that the state's conservation efforts are working, Gov. Sonny Perdue said Tuesday.
Providers in 61 counties reduced their water use by about 13 percent — or some 348 million gallons a day, Perdue said. "This is enough water to supply 1.7 million Georgia households every day," he said.
However, while that was enough to meet the region's overall goal, 31 of the region's 97 largest water providers didn't reach that target, and some providers actually increased their water use, said Carol Couch, the state's top environmental official. She said 17 others were "oh so close."
With reservoir levels at record lows, Perdue ordered public water providers and electrical utilities with water withdrawal permits throughout north Georgia in October to cut their water withdrawals by 10 percent. He warned then that systems could face fines from the state's Environmental Protection Division if they didn't comply.
Perdue said he's "amazed and pleasantly surprised" at the results.
He wouldn't say if the state will fine providers that didn't meet his order.
"We're not saying what consequences will or will not be," he said. "We think most people will do their part. We haven't focused on the consequences. We focused on how to diagnose how systems aren't successful."
Among those that didn't meet the mandate included electric utility Georgia Power, the state said.
Georgia Power is a subsidiary of Southern Company.
Six of the company's 10 power plants didn't meet the state's order, and several used more water than they did in the same period last year, including Plant Hammond, north Georgia's biggest water user. It used nearly 550 million gallons of water a day in November — an increase of almost 50 million gallons of water a day over last year.
Georgia Power spokesman Jeff Wilson said 93 percent of the water the company's plants use is returned to the water body from which it was withdrawn.
Wilson said the company is trying to more aggressively detect leaks and suspend all "nonessential water use."
More than 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, North and South Carolina, as well as parts of Kentucky and Virginia.
A dry winter is forecast and water reserves are dwindling in Lake Lanier, the north Georgia reservoir that supplies Atlanta with most of its water.
Perdue has asked the federal government to release less water from its reservoirs and held a public prayer vigil for rain on the steps of the Capitol.
The dry conditions have given a new sense of urgency to Georgia, Florida and Alabama to settle a water fight that's lasted almost 20 years over how the federal government manages water in the region.
At a meeting Monday, the three governors and the federal government agreed not to reduce the minimum amount of water flowing into Florida's Apalachicola Bay, a move that fishermen said would devastate the Florida Panhandle's oyster industry. They pledged to come up with a plan for doling out the region's water by March.