Georgia's Drought Crisis

The signs of a new world order in Georgia's water consumption are everywhere. Authorities in Douglas County have unleashed nighttime patrols to enforce an outdoor watering ban and close the taps of offenders. Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation has shut down its outdoor drinking fountains. The University of Georgia decreed a "No Flushing" policy for the 90,000 attendees at its homecoming event last week. Because of sprinkling restrictions, nurseries and landscapers are downsizing or going out of business altogether.

All of this results from one of the worst droughts Georgia has experienced in 100 years. Gov. Sonny Perdue has declared a state of emergency for 85 counties in the northern part of the state that are withering under a stage 4 drought, the worst classification possible. The problem isn't confined to Georgia; neighboring Southeastern states are suffering the consequences of meager rainfall as well. And the prognosis isn't encouraging. Because of a La Niña climate pattern that has developed, climatologists expect a warmer and drier winter and spring than normal. "It doesn't bode well," says Pam Knox, an assistant state climatologist and professor at the University of Georgia. "We'll get some rain this winter, but it probably won't be enough. It would take months and months of above-normal rainfall." The situation has become so dire that Perdue held a prayer service on Tuesday to appeal to a higher power for relief. "We've come together here simply for one reason and one reason only: to very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm," the governor told those gathered. (It rained a quarter-inch the following evening.)

Estimates of the remaining water supply for northern Georgia vary from day to day. The level of Lake Lanier, which provides much of the water for the Atlanta metropolitan area, is about nine feet below average, its lowest point since 1982. That means there are as little as 70 to 80 days of water supply left, says Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Other agencies, however, give a different figure. A spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the flow of water out of the lake, maintains that "if current conditions continue, we're confident that there is about nine months left in the lake, assuming no heavy rains. That's the worst-case scenario." But Couch says that in deriving that estimate, the Army Corps of Engineers is counting the so-called "dead zone" in the lake-its deepest reaches, which are rarely tapped and would require additional equipment to pump out.

Because of the dire shortage, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with protecting endangered species downstream of Atlanta's water supply, re-evaluated the wildlife's needs and today announced that reducing the Chattahoochee River's flow by up to 10 percent would not jeopardize endangered animals or adversely modify habitat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said it began reducing the flow by 5 percent today, and that the reductions should ensure Atlanta's water supply. In the event the crisis continues, more reductions will be considered.

In response to the crisis, Perdue last month ordered utilities and water systems to reduce water consumption by 10 percent or face fines. The Environmental Protection Division restricted most outdoor water use, with certain exceptions for fruit and vegetable growers or professional landscapers, among others. Some individual cities and counties have added their own measures. Among those implemented in Atlanta: fines of up to $1,000 for people who repeatedly violate the new rules; a prohibition against filling new pools; and the allowance of only one landscaping exemption per property (residents can obtain the exemption when they plant a new lawn, which they can sprinkle for up to 30 days). The city is also repairing water lines and replacing water meters to eliminate leaks. In Cobb County, the water authority has created a tiered pricing system that doubles the per-gallon rate for big consumers. It's also assessing a surcharge on commercial entities that exceed a certain level of use.

More reforms are likely on the way. The Georgia legislature appointed a panel to craft a statewide water management plan that it will vote on in January. "We've never had a truly statewide plan for managing water resources," says Bert Brantley, Perdue's press secretary. "Where reservoirs should be built, even something as simple as how much use is there and where it's going. We don't have good data on all those things." In the growing debate surrounding the water crisis, different individuals and groups have floated a bevy of ideas. Some are as basic as plugging leaks. "One of the biggest misuses is due to leaky infrastructure," says Gil Rogers, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "You lose a tremendous amount of water that way that never gets to your tap." On the costlier or more far-fetched end of the spectrum, some have suggested piping in water from the Tennessee River or building desalination plants.

As the state struggles to cope with drought, tensions are brewing. "Other hazards tend to pull people together," says Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "With a drought, because it's a limited resource, it tends to drive people apart." Farmers blame urbanites. Atlanta trades jabs with surrounding counties. And neighbor turns against neighbor. "We're taking hundreds of calls from people who are ratting out their neighbors," says Janet Ward, spokesperson for the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management. "People are angry. What do you expect? If your lawn is brown and blowing away, and the neighbor's is all green, you know what's going on." One egregious example that riled up Georgians: Chris Carlos, a wealthy homeowner in Cobb County. His 14,000-square-foot property sucked up 440,000 gallons of water in October-enough, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calculated, to fill the average backyard pool 58 times. In response to the outrage, Carlos vowed to drastically reduce his consumption. "I honestly didn't realize the extent of my water use and regret I didn't act sooner," he said in a statement this week.

One battle looms large above the others, though: a water war that has entangled Georgia and two of its neighbors, Alabama and Florida, for the past 17 years. It centers on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River system, of which Lake Lanier is a part. The same water that northern Georgia is thirsty for is also required downriver for power plants, various industries and endangered species including sturgeon and two types of mussels. As the drought has intensified, the interstate battle has as well. Perdue and north Georgia's water managers, have been calling for the Army Corps of Engineers to limit the outflow from Lake Lanier by 16 percent, thereby leaving more water for northern Georgia. They argue that the endangered species further south will still have sufficient water to survive-a claim environmental groups reject.

Naturally, the governors of Alabama and Florida have resisted. Though the White House appeared to broker an accord earlier this month, it fell apart last week. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's opinion released today will allow the Army Corps of Engineers to tighten the downriver spigot (although by not as much as Perdue and others were seeking). The reduction in the river's flow has given northern Georgia perhaps a bit more leeway. "When drought is impacting our state, you can't keep continuing with business as usual," says Brantley, Perdue's press secretary. That's true not only for government agencies, but for individual consumers as well.