Thirst and Long

See the effects of the drought on Lake Sidney Lanier in our photo gallery here.

You know the drought in north Georgia is bad when the old submerged speedway grandstands start poking out of the lake that holds Atlanta's drinking water.

That would be Lake Sidney Lanier, which feeds the Chattahoochee River system all the way to Apalachicola Bay in Florida.

With the worst drought in 115 years parching the Southeast, the 50-year-old lake has shrunk from 39,000 acres to 31,500. Its water levels are down nearly 15 feet, just three feet off the record low achieved in 1981.

As of this week, with waters receding, only 10 of the lake's 104 boat ramp lanes were open. Once-buried lumps of Blue Ridge Mountain foothills are nearing the surface.

The exposed ground around one marina shows rectangular depressions in the earth — the remnants of a former cemetery, where caskets were exhumed before the valley was flooded.

"We're right now praying for rain," said Ramon Martin, the fisheries regional supervisor for the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Lanier is far from alone in its straits, but the stress on the body of water, a celebrated bass fishery, is particularly harsh, given Atlanta's rapid growth. The metro area swelled by more than 20 percent between 2000 and 2006 alone, to more than 5.1 million people.

That high demand has brought tension between the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates the flow of the lake, and the state of Georgia, which claims the Corps is releasing too much of the lake's water — a steady 5,000 cubic feet per second — in the name of protecting threatened mussels downstream.

"Certainly there's been more growth in the Atlanta area," said Michael Lapina, the Army Corps of Engineers' chief park ranger at Lake Lanier. "But basically the drought we're in is a drought of unprecedented proportions."

Georgia Gov. Sonny Purdue has taken drastic steps to combat the effects of the drought. On Oct. 19, he filed a motion in Florida Federal Court to require the Corps to staunch water releases. The next day, he declared a state of emergency in 85 counties and requested that President Bush temporarily exempt Georgia from the Endangered Species Act.

On the 24th, he signed an executive order to reduce the state government's water use, demanding that buildings be inspected for plumbing leaks and that state vehicles go without washing "except in cases that would compromise driver safety."

"Really, really dry"

Seventy-one percent of the southeast is enduring drought conditions categorized as "severe" or worse. A third of the region — including parts of Virginia, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and almost all of Alabama — is in an "exceptional" category of drought that's usually a twice-per-century event.

As Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, puts it: "This is normally the dry season, but there's dry and then there's really, really dry."

This time last year, none of the same areas were suffering that level of drought. But a year of dry weather caught up with the region in the spring. A high pressure system that squatted over the Caribbean held the usual summer spate of tropical storms to a minimum — great for condo owners in Boca Raton, maybe, but lousy for farmers outside Knoxville.

It's also bad news for trout anglers around Atlanta. Each year, the Buford Hatchery releases about 200,000 trout into the 48 miles of the Chattahoochee River below the Buford Dam, relying mainly on water released from Lake Lanier to maintain the fishery.

"As the amount of stream water decreases, it starts warming up," Martin said. "We can't circulate enough cold water."

Without cool, clean water arriving from other streams, the hatchery released its stock into the main river channel earlier than usual this year. If the drought continues and the little runoff that arrives is still too warm and dirty to support the hatchery, managers will cut back on the next stock by 30 percent.

In the case of Lake Lanier itself, Martin expects the drawdown to kill many of the excessive weeds and bring baitfish out of the parched mouths streams into the main lake, making them "readily available for bass to exploit them."

If the winter does turn out to be as dry as forecast, shad won't have the shallows and the vegetative cover they need to spawn. The ecosystem can survive a year of dry times, but after two or three such seasons, "anglers will start catching less bass or you'll start seeing skinnier bass," Martin said.

That scenario looks likely. This winter is forecast to be influenced by a La Niña pattern in the Pacific, which Svoboda said will mean a warmer, dryer winter than usual across the American South.

The prediction: No relief any time soon. Catch 'em while you can, if you can still find a boat ramp with water around it.