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.
Lots of money was spent on radio and TV ads to encourage water conservation. One that particularly got attention was a call for limited toilet flushing: "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down."
"It became kind of patriotic to let your lawn dry up," said Kightlinger, who was in college at the time. "People banded together."
But he said the area never ordered limits beyond outdoor water restrictions. Neither did the Denver area, even during a brutal drought from 2002 to 2004, said Trina McGuire-Collier, a spokeswoman for Denver Water.
Denver gets about a third as much annual precipitation as metro Atlanta. That the Georgia city might be contemplating stiffer water restrictions "is amazing," McGuire-Collier said. "Of all places, you think you get a lot of precipitation."
Even the outdoor watering ban already in place in north Georgia is relatively uncommon for major U.S. cities, though Charlotte has put such limits in place this year.
But water watchers such as Wilhite, the University of Nebraska drought expert who is sometimes referred to as "Dr. Drought," predict that more big metro areas in the East will face predicaments like Atlanta's.
"The Eastern states are more vulnerable than the West," Wilhite said. The West learned long ago that they needed large backup supplies, such as giant reservoirs, he said. But in the East, long-term droughts are less common and "there's less emphasis on water conservation. They can get themselves into a situation more quickly.
"Coupled with population growth, a severe drought over a year or two or longer creates problems they've never had to deal with before," Wilhite said.
Amy Vickers, a water conservation consultant and author based in Amherst, Mass., said outdoor watering has increased dramatically in the last decade, drawing down water supplies more quickly and leaving government with less time to respond to a drought.
"We need to act sooner in imposing these more restrictive measures," Vickers said, "because we may not have as much time as we had in the past to rebound."
In Georgia, after the summer's peak watering days, the state ordered the outdoor watering ban. It came about a week after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted Lake Lanier would hit a historic low by year's end.
EPD officials said the state moved toward a ban as soon as the magnitude of the problems became more clear.
"We're running as fast as we can to put in responsible plans," Couch said.
Metro Atlanta is in an unfamiliar position. But some small communities have been there before.
In central North Carolina, drought has drained much of the reservoir for Siler City, a community of 8,000. Last week, officials ordered all water users - from homeowners to industries - to cut water use by 50 percent.
"We're asking them to do whatever it takes," town manager Joel Brower said.
Violators can be fined or, ultimately, have their water cut off.
Siler City utilities workers are checking some business' water meters every week, but there isn't enough staff to do the same at homes, Brower said. Schools and restaurants serve food on paper plates to cut down on dish washing. Local poultry plants have dropped one day a week of production, and they're paying for dozens of tanker trucks a day to haul water to the town's reservoir.
In metro Atlanta, several businesses say they don't know what the state may force them to do.
With 1,260 guest rooms, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta uses tens of millions of gallons of water a year. But Randy Childers, the hotel's senior director of engineering, said many conservation measures are already in place. The hotel outsources its laundry to a facility outside metro Atlanta, guests are requested to hang up their towels if they don't need to be laundered, rooms have low-flow fixtures, the cooling system optimizes water use and, since the drought deepened, irrigation of plants has been done with condensation from the cooling system. The hotel now puts fewer water pitchers in meeting rooms, he said.
"In some ways, we feel like we have done as much as we can do, but there may be things we can do that we just haven't thought of," he said.
Some local governments in Georgia are working up their own plans.
Officials in Athens-Clarke County are considering how to cut 30 percent of their water use. Among the considerations is restricting water use according to type, such as residential, business or various types of industry.
In Douglas County, the local water authority director said industries could be forced to reduce water use, perhaps by changing operations or temporarily shifting work to other facilities.
Pete Frost said another possibility is routing the treated flows from sewage plants into the authority's drinking water reservoir. That would require state approval in addition to facing public relations challenges, he said.
- Staff writer Stacy Shelton contributed to this report.