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.