South scrambles to cope with drought
Water supply in Atlanta less than 90 days
ATLANTA - With the South in the grip of a drought and its largest city holding less than a 90-day supply of water, officials are scrambling to deal with the worst-case scenario: What if Atlanta's faucets really do go dry?
No real backup plan exists. And there are no quick fixes among suggested solutions, which include piping water in from rivers in neighboring states, building more regional reservoirs, setting up a statewide recycling system, or even desalinating water from the Atlantic Ocean.
"It's amazing that things have come to this," said Ray Wiedman, owner of an Atlanta landscaping business.
"Everybody knew the growth was coming. We haven't had a plan for all the people coming here?"
Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia seems to be pinning his hopes on a two-pronged approach: urging water conservation and reducing water flowing out of federally controlled lakes.
Perdue's office yesterday asked a Florida federal judge to force the Army Corps of Engineers to curb the amount of water draining from Georgia reservoirs into Alabama and Florida. And the director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division is drafting proposals for more water restrictions.
But that may not be enough to stave off the water crisis. More than a quarter of the Southeast is covered by "exceptional" drought, the National Weather Service's worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, sits in the middle of the affected region, which extends over most of Tennessee, Alabama, and the northern half of Georgia, as well as parts of North and South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia.
State officials warn that Lake Lanier, a 38,000-acre north Georgia reservoir that supplies more than 3 million residents with water, is already less than three months from depletion. Smaller reservoirs are dropping even lower, forcing local governments to consider rationing.
State water managers say there is more water available in the lake's reserves. But tapping into it would require the use of barges, emergency pumps, and longer water lines. And some lawmakers fear that if the lake is drained that low, it may be impossible to refill.
The Corps of Engineers, which manages the water in the region, stresses there is no reason to think Atlanta will soon run out of water.
"We're so far away from that, nobody's doing a contingency plan," said Major Daren Payne, the deputy commander of the Mobile office of the Corps of Engineers.
"Quite frankly, there's enough water left to last for months," Payne said. "We've got a serious drought, there's no doubt about it - anytime you deplete your entire storage pool and tap into the reserve." But, he said, any calls to stockpile bottled water would be "very premature."
Still, some academics and politicians are proposing contingency plans in case the situation worsens.
Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta said the region should explore piping in water from additional sources, possibly from the Tennessee or Savannah rivers. She even suggested desalinating seawater from Georgia's Atlantic coast.
"We need to look beyond our borders," she said.
Roy Barnes told reporters this week that when he was governor he had planned to offer grants to fix leaks that waste millions of gallons of water each year. He also said he had wanted to build three state reservoirs to help avert a water crisis. Barnes, a Democrat, was defeated in 2002.
"Los Angeles added 1 million people without increasing their water supply," he told reporters. "And if Los Angeles can do it, I'll tell you Georgia can."
Meanwhile, it appears the idea of building state reservoirs is gaining steam in the Legislature as Georgia's battle with the Corps of Engineers over federal reservoirs heats up. Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle said he favors building regional reservoirs shared by multiple communities to harness the 50 trillion gallons of water that fall on Georgia each year.
"You can see that if we can just manage the rainfall and utilize that and make sure that we have abundant storage for it, we can take care of our needs well into the future," said Cagle, a Republican from Gainesville, the largest city on Lake Lanier.
Some academics say Georgia should start using more "purple water," waste water that is partially treated and can be used for irrigation, firefighting, and uses other than drinking. That would conserve lake water and help replenish the water supply.
Such measures could make Georgia "drought-proof," said Todd Rasmussen, a professor of hydrology and water resources at the University of Georgia.
The drought has led to extreme conservation measures. Almost all outdoor watering was banned across the northern half of the state, restaurants were asked to serve water only at a customer's request, and the governor called on Georgians to take shorter showers.