So what's the real story here? First, let's take a look at the lay of the land. 50 years ago the Corps of Engineers built a dam to create Lake Lanier in north Georgia. The initial purpose of the dam and lake included flood control, hydroelectric power, and recreation (although my skeptical mind thinks that probably a good deal of politics and pork-barrel spending was involved. But I digress). At the time, the population of the Atlanta area was around a million people. However, now let's take a look at the population of the metro area. The population of Atlanta doubled between 1980 and 2000 to around 4 million people. The population is now around 5 million, with another million in growth projected in the next six years. That's a lot of people. It's also a lot of sprawl and a lot of infrastructure. All of those people and related infrastructure need a lot of water. And in 1989 the Corps allowed the city to start using water from Lake Lanier for drinking water to help meet the growing need.
Alabama and Florida didn't much like that decision. The water that flows out of Lake Lanier eventually makes its way into both Alabama and Florida. Both states rely on the water flowing out of Georgia for various purposes. Alabama relies on the river as a cooling systems for a key nuclear plant. In addition, the water that flows downstream from Atlanta eventually runs into Apalachicola Bay, an area rich in oysters, shrimp, and other seafood.
However, with one of the worst droughts in history going full force, plus the exploding population of Atlanta, Lake Lanier is drying up. I turned on the Weather Channel the other day and heard a report that Atlanta is within 100 days of running out of "readily available" water . Today I read the lake actually has enough for 280 days, but will require lots of expensive treatment. How did this situation get so dire? Is the drought really that bad?
Yes, the drought is bad--the worst on record. But drought is not uncommon in the south. The problem in my opinion is lack of planning. State and city officials all over the southeast know that droughts come and go, and have done nothing to prepare--and in addition have encouraged uncontrolled growth. An editorial in the Atlanta Journal Constitution sums it up quite nicely:
A bill introduced in Congress last week will require the Corps to ignore the Endangered Species Act (that seems to be happening a lot lately) and withhold water in Lake Lanier to conserve Atlanta's drinking water. This will obviously heavily impact all of the aquatic life downstream, including a variety of endangered mussels. However, it will also severely impact the oyster, shrimp, and fishing industry in Florida (and Alabama's nuclear plant that produces quite a bit of the region's electricity). According to the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, the bay provides 13% of our oysters and is a nursery for shrimp, blue crabs, and important recreational and commercial fish species such as striped bass, flounder, grouper, redfish, snapper and speckled trout. In 1995, 5 million pounds of seafood were harvested from the bay."
For years, despite predictions of drought's dire consequences on the lifestyles, jobs and economy of Georgians, our officials placated business, industry, developers and citizens at large by ignoring those threats. Apathy was politically profitable.
And now that the "big one" has hit, rather than political fall-out, there is electoral advantage even from having ignored these risks.
So what is more important, continuing to encourage sprawl in Atlanta? The fishery industry in Florida? Alabama's economic needs? Endangered aquatic life? How does conservation and innovation fit into this equation? With politics involved, I suspect there will be no easy answer to this very serious problem.
I really wonder what will happen. Atlanta continues to grow. People don't seem to have a clue about water conservation. There is no real planning going into new urban developments. How can unabated growth continue with no thought to where all the additional water will come from? The drought is not expected to get any better next year. I get the feeling that Georgia officials are counting on spring rains to save them from their lack of planning. I wouldn't count on that.
Here's a few more articles about the southern water wars: