Friday, January 4, 2008

Water, Water...Anywhere?

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2007 was Atlanta's second driest year on record. Even so, the 10 days of rainfall over the last 13 days of the year left Atlanta's main source of drinking water, Lake Lanier, at its lowest level ever. Even more alarming is that the 1954 drought had only .05 inches less rainfall. Atlanta is quite a different place today than it was two years before the passage of the Interstate Highway Act.

I visited the reservoir closest to my parents' house today and snapped a few pictures. Lake Allatoona is in the same boat as Lanier when it comes the lack of water. Here, boat ramps reach unsuccessfully for the water line and docks rest sadly on terra firma.

Metro Atlanta is not alone in the dire straits of this dry spell, but it is the largest city being affected. The drought has made national headlines and at one point one could easily keep track of how many days of water Atlanta was estimated to have. The recent rainfall has extended the deadline, and it was never as simple as naming the date when Lanier would be empty, but the popular attention being paid to this situation shows that Americans are beginning to put more consideration into environmental and planning issues like these.

And what will happen once Lanier runs dry? I think it's safe to say that no one in Atlanta really wants to contemplate the answer to that question, but someone must address it. If it is a real possibility, the threat has never been greater than it is now. For as far back as I can remember, outdoor watering has been restricted, if not banned completely, for parts of every year. So the idea of conserving is not new, but rationing or shortages will put a significant crimp on living in Atlanta's almost-tropical climate.

Despite prayers for rain and calls for shorter showers, Georgia and the rest of the Southeast faces a crisis. While it is true that the drought has put undue strain on the water system, it alone cannot be blamed for the problem.

In 1950, the year construction started on Buford Dam (which impounds Lake Lanier) metropolitan Atlanta's population was 727,000. The year after impoundment was completed, 1960, the population had just surpassed one million. According to 2006 Census estimates, metro Atlanta is now approximately 5.1 million. Statewide, the population has more than doubled its 1950 level. Furthermore, the Atlanta Regional Commission expects approximately two million new residents in the area by 2030.

With all of this population change, it's no wonder that the faucets are about to run dry. For almost 60 years, Atlanta has relied on little more than minor changes to keep up with population growth. The explosion of the Sunbelt seems, however, to be overwhelming any efforts to maintain Atlanta's water supply. How long will this problem be allowed to fester before public officials make real efforts at creating sustainable solutions to Atlanta's water problems?

Water officials must have known for years that this day would come. Indeed a major theme of political discourse between the states in the Chattahoochee basin (Georgia, Alabama, Florida) has been in regards to what has become known as the Tri-state Water War. While southern Georgians and the states of Alabama and Florida want to maintain water for agricultural and environmental purposes, metro Atlanta continues to request more and more water for its own use. This situation alone is enough to indicate that crisis is imminent. Were our officials planning on creating a strategy to increase the total amount of available water, or was the sole strategy based on endless appeals to the Army Corps of Engineers?

There are few "right" answers in planning, but there are many questions. One such question should be used to spark the debate about growth and resource depletion. We must ask whether there is a point at which Atlanta should stop growing. Is it ethical for metro Atlanta governments to continue to allow new houses and businesses to be constructed when there is currently a water shortage? While I will not attempt to answer the question, the implication is clear: the status quo is no longer a given. We must begin to consider alternatives to our normal modus operandi when it comes to Atlanta growth.

There are measures that can be taken, but even if we do solve this crisis, we must recognize that many resources are finite. In order to survive in a world of ever increasing population, we must find better ways of planning how to discover, conserve, and manage those resources. Hopefully, Atlanta can still become a model in that regard, but the row will be hard to hoe and the efforts must start immediately.

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