Despite ample winter rains in some areas, it appears Georgia might be headed for another drought year, according to David Stooksbury, state climatologist.

Georgia has been in a drought since May 1998, leading to statewide water restrictions, payments to farmers for not irrigating their crops, dry wells in some rural areas and lawn watering bans in urban areas.

“Most of Georgia is in a severe to moderate drought,” says Stooksbury. “The only part of the state where stream flows are adequate is in the northwest corner.”

Groundwater levels still are extremely low, he adds. “Models show that the soil moisture in the southern Piedmont and northern Coastal Plain would be higher in at least 95 out of 100 years,” he says.

There's still time to correct short-term problems, but the clock is ticking, said Stooksbury in mid-February. “We have a few more weeks to get the groundwater, soils, streams and reservoir levels recharged, or we're going to be hurting this summer.

“Every week we go with little or no rainfall is making it less likely we can get groundwater and reservoirs recharged to normal.”

At about mid-April, even with normal rainfall, Georgia will begin to lose moisture from its soil, he says, and it'll take several months of above-normal rainfall to push the state out of its current multi-year drought.

A look at stream flows shows the magnitude of the drought in Georgia. Spring Creek in southwest Georgia is flowing at about 28 cubic feet per second (cfs). It previous record-low was 67 cfs. The Alapaha River should flow at about 1,240 cfs this time of year. It's now flowing at about 95 cfs.

In southeast Georgia, the Satilla River is flowing at 40 cfs. Its previous record-low was 65 cfs, and its median flow should be 1,010 cfs at this time of year. And the Altamaha River, flowing now at 5,870 cfs, should be flowing at about 20,400 cfs.

And the extended outlook for Georgia isn't promising, says Stooksbury. “There probably will be below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures,” he says.

The state Environmental Protection Division (EPD), which is responsible for water quality and water availability, has announced that it may make a severe drought declaration early this month, authorizing a second round of payments to farmers in the Flint River Basin who agree not to irrigate.

“The Floridan Aquifer in southwest Georgia simply hasn't recovered from four consecutive dry years,” says Harold Reheis, director of EPD.

Last year, during the first summer of the Flint River Drought Protection Act, the EPD saved about 130 million gallons of water per day by paying farmers $4.5 million to idle some irrigation systems.

“The declaration of drought in the Flint River basin is a policy-type of decision,” says Stooksbury. “Even if a drought is not declared, it doesn't mean south Georgia is not experiencing drought conditions. It just means the criteria for that policy haven't been met.”

A bright spot is the apparent formation of an El Nino weather system in the Pacific, meaning wetter weather during the cooler months over the Southern United States. But the effects might not be felt until next fall, says Stooksbury.