The epic drought is tightening its grip on the southern U.S., where once-mighty Lake Lanier, the Atlanta water source is now a relative puddle surrounded by acres (hectares) of dusty red clay.
Tall measuring sticks once covered by 12 feet (3.7 meters) of water stand bone dry. "No Diving" signs rise from rocks 25 feet (7.6 meters) from the water. Crowds of boaters have been replaced by men with metal detectors searching the arid lake bed for lost treasure.
Little rain is in the forecast, and without it climatologists say the water source for more than 3 million people could run dry in just 90 days.
That dire prediction has some towns considering more drastic measures than mere lawn-watering bans, including mandatory rationing that would penalize homeowners and businesses if they do not reduce water usage.
"We're way beyond limiting outdoor water use. We're talking about indoor water use," said Jeff Knight, an environmental engineer for the college town of Athens, 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Atlanta, which is preparing a last-ditch rationing program as its reservoir dries up.
"There has to be limits to where government intrudes on someone's life, but we have to impose a penalty on some people," he added.
About 26 percent of the southeastern U.S. is covered by an "exceptional" drought - the National Weather Service's worst drought category. The affected area extends like a dark cloud over most of Tennessee, Alabama and the northern half of Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia.
The only spots in the region not suffering from abnormally dry conditions are parts of southern and eastern Florida and southeast Georgia.
Government forecasters say the drought started in parts of Georgia and Alabama in early 2006 and spread quickly. Sweltering temperatures and a drier-than-normal hurricane season contributed to the parched landscape.
Now residents are starting to feel the pinch.
Restaurants are being asked to serve water only at a customer's request, and Governor Sonny Perdue has called on Georgians to take shorter showers. The state could also impose more limits within the next two weeks, possibly restricting water for commercial and industrial users.
In North Carlina, Governor Mike Easley stopped short of imposing statewide water rationing but asked people to stop watering lawns and washing cars.
"A bit of mud on the car or patches of brown on the lawn must be a badge of honor," Easley said Monday. "It means you are doing the right thing for your community and our state."
As conditions worsen, the Army Corps of Engineers has become a favorite target of lawmakers in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, where the drought has intensified a decades-old feud involving how the Corps manages water rights.
"I particularly am disappointed that the Corps has allowed so much water to drain out of our reservoirs, out of our lakes, as they have," said Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican. "It's not that we haven't had enough water. It's more a function of allowing so much of it to go downstream."
On Friday, Perdue threatened to take legal action if the Corps continued to let more water out of a north Georgia water basin than it collects. And the president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said on Monday that businesses could also line up behind a legal challenge.
"We have an ongoing water crisis in metro Atlanta. And it is the biggest and most imminent economic threat to our region," said Sam Williams, the chamber's president.
Scientists have little reason to hope the drought will ease anytime soon.
The Southeast Climate Consortium warns that a La Nina weather system is forming, which could bring drier and warmer weather for Florida and most parts of Alabama and Georgia.
"When we need to recharge our water system, this is what we don't want," said state climatologist David Stooksbury, who predicted that it will take months of above-average rainfall to recoup the losses.
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