The “Other” Water Problem

Journalists turn from rising seas to shrinking reservoirs

In a long, New York Times Magazine cover story last weekend, Jon Gertner envisioned a dry future in the American southwest where, unless conservation measures are enacted soon, states could be squabbling over diminishing stores of water.

But in the southeast, where climatologists five years ago would have told you such an event is far less likely, the future has arrived early-and caught some by surprise. On Monday, the Times carried a front-page story about the severe dry spell stirring up interstate animosity in Georgia, Alabama, and the entire region.

“The response to the worst drought on record in the Southeast has unfolded in ultra-slow motion,” write Shaila Dewan and Brenda Goodman. As idleness turns to crisis, however, the national press is shifting some attention from the big water worry du jour-rising seas-and from more widely covered (and anticipated) droughts in the southwest and places like China and Australia, to the southeast.

In particular, the national media have latched onto startling images of a depleted reservoir in northern Georgia. As the Associated Press put it last week, “If there’s a ground zero for the epic drought that’s tightening its grip on the South, it’s once-mighty Lake Lanier, the Atlanta water source that’s now a relative puddle surrounded by acres of dusty red clay.”

Monday’s article in the Times carried a front-page picture of the desiccated reservoir, which also provides water to parts of Alabama and Florida. It may be drained within four months, according to the direst predictions. The Times had published its first pictures of Lake Lanier just a week earlier, in another story about the southeast drought and the North Carolina governor’s readiness to declare a state of emergency. (The Timesfirst article on the water crisis appeared on July 4, however. It didn’t mention Lanier, but focused on the drought’s impact on farmers and residents: damaged crops, premature cattle sales, difficult river navigation, and, of course, a ban on holiday fireworks.)

For the first time in 100 years, much of the southeast has now reached the highest level of drought - category four. Last Saturday, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency and yesterday he ordered public water providers in the northern part of the state to reduce withdrawals from rivers, lakes, and wells by 10 percent starting November 1. Atlanta has banned outdoor watering during the week, but though there has been some indication that the state government will follow suit, it continues to balk at restrictions. Indoor residential, as well as agricultural and industrial, water use remain especially sensitive topics. Rather than develop meaningful statewide conservation measures, according the Times’ Monday article, “Georgia has engaged in interminable squabbles with neighboring states over dam releases and flow rates.”

Many Georgians blame the state’s water woes on the Army Corps of Engineers, which releases water from Lake Lanier to help protect three endangered species (a type of sturgeon and two types of mussels) downstream in Alabama and Florida. Just two weeks ago, the corps actually increased withdrawals from Lake Lanier, despite its plummeting water level. Then last week, Governor Perdue filed an injunction against the corps to stop what he considers excessive water releases that do not take severe drought into account. Carol Couch, his director of environmental protection, told the Times that Georgians have not “consumed our way into this drought, as some would suggest.”

Around Atlanta, many people point the finger not only at the corps, but also at downstream states that continue to insist they need the releases from Lake Lanier. Alabama and Florida retort that people upstream are squandering their own resources. An editorial in the St. Petersburg Times last Friday had the headline, “Georgia, don’t pin your water shortage on us.”

To be sure, there is ample reason to criticize the various states’ inadequate water conservation measures (Florida is the only state in the region with a statewide plan). According this week’s article in the Times, Alabama is the most unprepared for severe drought, but Georgians’ recent behavior has also been dangerously cavalier:

All summer, more than a year after the drought began, fountains sprayed and football fields were watered, prisoners got two showers a day and Coca-Cola’s bottling plants chugged along at full strength. On an 81-degree day this month, an outdoor theme park began to manufacture what was intended to be a 1.2-million-gallon mountain of snow.

This reckless consumption of water has not gone unnoticed. Although the national press has only recently begun to cover the southeast drought, for at least the last year regional newspapers including (but not limited to) The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, and The Charlotte Observer, have been churning out articles, editorials, and opinions columns on the water crisis.

The Journal-Constitution has, in particular, tackled the drought from a wide variety of angles: political unpreparedness and intransigence, Lake Lanier, tips for gardeners and landscapers, the Coke bottling plant, the theme park’s artificial snow shenanigans, the impacts on local flora and fauna. In the last week alone, the paper has published nearly fifty such pieces (many just a couple hundred words) in its pages. According its most recent editorial, which ran last Wednesday, relief will be found only in a combination of interstate and federal agreements that regulate water flow from major reservoirs like Lake Lanier, and individual conservation measures, such as the expected cutbacks in water consumption at the Coke bottling plant.

Whatever the eventual plan, however, it is clear to everybody that inaction is no longer an option, and here we can turn back to Gertner’s Times Magazine piece on drought in the southwest for useful perspective on what will happen if it persists in the southeast. His fascinating and well-reported tale is centered between one large city, Las Vegas, and one small town, Dillon, Colorado, that are both struggling to survive in the parched environment. The root of the problems there is the same as it is in the southeast, however: as one Colorado water manager tells Gertner, “We’ve decoupled land use from water use.” In other words, development is outstripping sustainability.

Unfortunately, striking a balance along these lines requires an accurate picture of hydrological supply and demand, which, as the current fight over Lake Lanier in Georgia shows, is remarkably difficult to achieve. When scientists study drought (and water flow), they generally thinks in terms of rivers basins and watersheds, but water managers have to think in terms of their own cities. This can lead to conflict when specific populations grow beyond what is locally sustainable. To that effect, Gertner cites one of the west’s early explorers, John Wesley Powell, who argued that river basins, not arbitrary mapmakers, should define the boundaries of western states. Because land and water use is decoupled, places like Las Vegas and Dillon still face obstacles to securing the water resources they need that are reminiscent of the movie Chinatown, which chronicled Los Angeles’ 1913 water grab from the Owens Valley, 225 miles away: shady land deals, staggering infrastructure costs, and dramatic environmental impacts and engineering.

This situation is now migrating from the southwest to the southeast, but the best solution is a matter of opinion. Gertner quotes one climatologist about the future of the Colorado River basin whose point of view is just as applicable on the other side of the country:

A crisis is a point in a story, a moment in a narrative, that presents an opportunity for characters to think their way through a problem. A catastrophe, on the other hand, is something different: it is one of several possible outcomes that follow from a crisis.

Water managers in Georgia, Alabama, and elsewhere should keep this in mind as they watch the water in Lake Lanier get lower by the day.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.