Atlanta aquarium empties exhibits during drought

.ATLANTA (AP) – With drought conditions intensifying across the Southeast, efforts to conserve water are popping up everywhere – even at the aquarium.

In the name of conservation, the Georgia Aquarium, home of the world’s largest fish tank, has emptied some of its watery displays. The downtown Atlanta attraction has drained a lake in an atrium, turned off a waterfall and nearly emptied a moat at an exhibit, refilling it with sand.

The aquarium isn’t alone: A water salute to retiring pilots at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport also has been put on hold.

The efforts are some of the most unusual as the state contends with one of the worst droughts in its history. Georgia already has banned virtually all outdoor water use and ordered public water utilities to cut back water use by 10 percent.

The aquarium also is installing waterless urinals and low-flow faucets, banning pressure-washing of its building and requiring all employees and volunteers to take a water-conservation course.

None of the drained exhibits contained fish, aquarium spokeswoman Meghann Gibbons said. Exhibits with fish continue to operate normally, she said.

“We’ve tried to do anything we can internally,” said Gibbons. She estimated that changes at the aquarium will save more than 3 million gallons a year.

Along with saving water, the measures have had a financial bonus: Pennies that visitors toss into a pool once brimming with water are now easily accessible. “And they’ve been turned in to the bank,” Gibbons quipped.

On a smaller plumbing scale, operators of a northeast Georgia dental clinic installed two portable toilets in the parking lot last week to cut down water usage by their staff members.

“People are flushing the toilets pretty regular when you have 30 employees and six or seven doctors,” said Bob Fogg, who operates Athens Family Dental Center with his wife and sister-in-law.

The dentists’ patients still get to use the center’s regular toilets.

The airport has banned its “washdown” salute given to retiring commercial airline pilots on their final flight to the airport. For decades, two Atlanta Fire Department trucks would spray an arch of water to salute the pilot.

However, that display used about 500 gallons of water.

“We’re trying to mainly use water for essential firefighting operations,” said Capt. Bill May, a fire department spokesman. “Maybe if we can get the water supplies back up, we can revisit the process.”

The drought has worsened with sweltering temperatures and a drier-than-normal hurricane season. Now drought in almost one-third of the Southeast has been deemed “exceptional” – the most severe drought category.

West Georgia’s Paulding County has taken some of the most aggressive steps so far, restricting watering for landscapers and car washes that don’t recycle and imposing fines on first offenses for watering violations. The county has also ordered homes and business to cut water use by 10 percent or face stiffer fees.