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Water use up slightly after restrictions lifted
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ATLANTA - Water use in north Georgia has risen slightly since the state relaxed strict outdoor water restrictions put in place amid a historic drought - but remains far below the water use levels of two years ago - encouraging officials seeking to prove Georgia residents are not "water pigs."

The figures released Wednesday are the first snapshot since state officials lifted the restrictions last month and are considered an important test for a state locked in a legal battle with Alabama and Florida over federal water rights.

The figures show that water use in June in the 55-county north Georgia region rose an average of 1.8 percent compared to the same month the year before. The strict drought restrictions that covered the area were lifted June 10 as increasing rainfall elevated the state out of drought status.

The numbers also show that the month's water is down 18.4 percent compared to the same month in 2007, which was before the strictest restrictions were put in place.

"These numbers indicate that Georgians have made water conservation part of their daily lives," said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. "Conservation is obviously critical during drought, but I am particularly encouraged to see our efforts continue now that the rains have returned and the drought is over."

It comes as the tug-of-war between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over water rights intensifies.

A federal judge ruled this month that Georgia had little legal right to draw drinking water from Lake Lanier, the massive federal reservoir that is Atlanta's main supply. The judge set a three-year deadline for Georgia to find a solution.

Georgia environmental officials say the water use figures will help burnish the state's image as it tries to reach an accord.

"There's a perception promoted by our neighboring states that somehow Georgians are water pigs, and these data refute that," said Carol Couch, director of the state environmental protection division.

The state banned virtually all outdoor water use across parched north Georgia and ordered utilities to cut water use by 10 percent in September 2007 as the drought gripping the region spread and sent Georgia's streams and reservoirs plunging.

But months of replenishing rainfall have helped Georgia's main water sources rebound. Perdue declared the drought was over on June 10 and officials lifted the tough restrictions.

Environmental groups say they are optimistic about the data, but want more time to delve into the details. Sally Bethea of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper said there appears to be a "disconnect" between the figures and what she is hearing from her group's members.

"This is good news if these numbers are accurate and hold up through the summer," she said. "Based on our anecdotal information, it appears to us that outdoor watering has risen dramatically in metro Atlanta, especially during daytime hours."

The data released Wednesday did show that use in some areas skyrocketed. Water use in south Fulton County's Union City jumped almost 70 percent compared with last year. And water use in Locust Grove, a Henry County city, climbed more than 53 percent over the period.

But those increases were offset by drops among some of the biggest utilities. Water use in the city of Atlanta, the region's largest, fell by 6.4 percent. And water use in the north Georgia city of Dalton fell by 5.3 percent.

Couch said conservation-minded residents helped tamp down water use, but she also said efforts by utilities and local governments to increase efficiency and plug costly leaks during the drought have paid off.

"These are things that happened during the drought and we still reap the benefits today," she said. "Those fixes now are permanent and they continue to contribute."

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