BUFORD, GA (CBS/AP)
If there's a ground zero for the epic drought that's tightening its grip on the South, it's once-mighty Lake Lanier, the Atlanta water source that's now a relative puddle surrounded by acres of dusty red clay.
Tall measuring sticks once covered by a dozen feet of water stand bone dry. "No Diving" signs rise from rocks 25 feet from the water. Crowds of boaters have been replaced by men with metal detectors searching the arid lake bed for lost treasure.
Lake Lanier's the primary source of drinking water for more than 4 million people, reports CBS
ews correspondent Mark Strassmann. But levels have plunged to eight feet below normal. And without rain in another month, levels could drop another five feet, passing the record low.
"This lake is a survivor," Jeff "Buddha" Powell told a worried customer at his bait shop along the barren banks.
"If you panic, you don't help Mother Nature," he added. "It's going to rain when it rains."
But this is a once-a-century drought, reports Strassmann. In the best estimate, without rain, metro-Atlanta has 120 days left of usable drinking water.
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 don't 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 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. "The problem is how much and who. That gets political. But it's going to hurt everyone. We're all going to share the pain."
About 26 percent of the Southeast 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.
Meanwhile, a drought parching much of the West and Southeast spread into the Mid-Atlantic area in September, the government reported in its monthly climate summary.
At the end of September about 43 percent of the contiguous United States was in moderate to extreme drought, the National Climate Data Center said Tuesday.
The Great Lakes, which together make up about 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water, have been in decline since the late 1990s. Lakes Huron and Michigan were about 2 feet below their long-term average levels, while Lake Superior was about 20 inches off, Lake Ontario 7 inches below and Lake Erie a few inches down.
Government forecasters say the Georgia and Alabama droughts started 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 Gov. 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, Gov. Mike Easley stopped short of imposing statewide water rationing but asked people to stop watering lawns and washing cars.
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