Energy & Environment

Southeastern Water Wars

On June 10, 2009, state officials in Georgia declared that the severe three-year drought that parched metro Atlanta and much of the Southeast was finally over. But...
by | February 1, 2010

On June 10, 2009, state officials in Georgia declared that the severe three-year drought that parched metro Atlanta and much of the Southeast was finally over. But the reprieve will be brief: The Atlanta region's next water shortage begins on July 17, 2012.

Atlanta doesn't know that specific date because of some scientific advance in weather forecasting. Instead, it knows the date because metro Atlanta's next drought will be a man-made one. And the man who's making it is Paul Magnuson.

Magnuson, a semiretired federal judge, issued a ruling that sent shockwaves through Georgia last fall. Weighing in on the water wars that have divided Georgia, Florida and Alabama for two decades, he ruled that the Atlanta area never should have been using Lake Sidney Lanier, a massive reservoir built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1956, as its water supply. There's just one problem with that: Lake Lanier is the Atlanta region's primary source of water.

Barring a legal or political reversal, Magnuson's ruling will go into effect in fewer than two and a half years. As a result, a place that annually receives 50 inches of rain - and is known for its lush forests - now must confront a future of water scarcity. State and local officials in Georgia are rushing to either find ways to use less water or, less plausibly, acquire more of it.

Whether those officials can meet this challenge will say a lot about the future of water policy in the United States - which is projected to add 100 million people over the next 40 years. Given that, water is about to become a lot more scarce in places all over the country - even in places like Atlanta that always have taken it for granted.

The problem that Georgia, Florida and Alabama face is that water makes a habit of ignoring boundaries. Both the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers start in western Georgia, but head west into Alabama, where they merge and become the Alabama River - Montgomery's primary water source. Likewise, the Chattahoochee River starts out in northeastern Georgia, but soon winds its way south along the Alabama border until it hooks up with the Flint (another Georgia river) and flows through the Florida Panhandle as the Apalachicola River, spilling into Apalachicola Bay. The Chattahoochee River also is the source for Lake Lanier, meaning the amount of water being drawn from Lanier impacts the flow downstream.

So the question that these three states have fought over is how much water Georgia gets to take from these two river systems before the water leaves the state. And the question has become more urgent for Alabama and Florida, as metro Atlanta's population has exploded in recent years: Alabama worries that growth in Georgia won't leave enough water for it to grow in its own right, while Florida worries about Apalachicola Bay, which produces 10 percent of the nation's oyster harvest. The flow of water from the Apalachicola River is crucial to the oyster habitat.

In the 20-year water war, there have been protracted legal battles, negotiations and fleeting breakthroughs. But nothing has settled the issue once and for all. Nor has anything happened that was quite as dramatic as Magnuson's ruling.

Leaders in Georgia weren't shocked that they lost in court - they were shocked by the remedy Magnuson ordered. He declared that withdrawals from Lanier be reduced to mid-1970s levels by the 2012 deadline. Those reductions would be devastating.

For example, Gwinnett County, a sprawling exurb, gets virtually all of its water from Lanier. Today Gwinnett County has 800,000 people. In 1980, it had just 167,000, meaning that it withdrew just a fraction of the water it needs today. Not all Atlanta-area jurisdictions take water directly from Lanier, but even the ones that don't are dependent on releases of water from Lanier to other waterways. "The judge himself called it a draconian ruling," says Georgia State Rep. Lynn Smith, who chairs the Natural Resources and Environment Committee. "In Georgia we said, 'Well, yes. Draconian is a good word.'"

Magnuson reasoned that Congress never formally authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to allow water withdrawals from Lanier. But Georgia political leaders hope to get the ruling overturned one way or another, and if Congress now offers approval, the problem will be solved. The ruling also is being appealed in court, and negotiations between the three states lately have shown some signs of life.

There's no guarantee, however, that any of those avenues will relieve Georgia's pressure. So the state is urgently contemplating alternatives. After Magnuson's ruling, one of the first impulses coming out of metro Atlanta was to look for new sources of water. If Atlanta is losing the water war with Florida and Georgia, why not fight other water wars it can win?

Ideas include funneling water from Columbus, south of Atlanta; Rome, to the west; Lake Buford, to the east; or, most ambitiously, from the Tennessee River, to the north. Fighting for the Tennessee River would involve opening a dispute with Tennessee over the location of the border - a border that's stayed where it is since 1818 - yet some lawmakers seem to take the idea seriously.

The problem with all of these ideas, in addition to major logistical hurdles, is that Atlanta is no more likely to win these water wars than the one with Florida and Alabama. Communities guard their water jealously. Water is viewed as the key to growth, and growth is viewed as the key to economic prosperity. "It's basically about outsourcing jobs and resources to a different portion of the state," says Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative in Rome. "They're asking communities like Rome, Augusta and Columbus to transfer water and jobs to metro Atlanta." While some interbasin transfers are occurring, Atlanta likely doesn't have enough clout in the Georgia Legislature to engage in large-scale water grabs from other parts of the state.

All of that has led metro Atlanta's political leadership to a simple conclusion: People in the Atlanta area must use less water. That, in a nutshell, was the conclusion of Gov. Sonny Perdue's blue-ribbon Water Contingency Planning Task Force, which rushed to devise a plan after Magnuson's ruling. While expensive new reservoirs can help over the long term, the only thing that can make a difference in the judge's 30-month window is conservation.

Atlanta isn't Tucson. Water conservation doesn't come naturally to the area. But, in a way, the drought that just ended was a blessing in disguise. The area got a taste of living in a water-constrained environment, and policymakers have a jump-start on finding ways to use water more efficiently.

Since even before the drought began, some of the most aggressive action has come from Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb with 700,000 people. Cobb County has blended public relations and public programs to promote conservation: It offers rebates to citizens who install low-flush toilets and water-efficient faucets; it offers guides for conducting indoor and outdoor water audits; and it's handed out free moisture sensors so residents know whether they need to water their yards.

Perhaps the most important thing that Cobb County did was hire a full-time employee focused on water efficiency. As the county's water resource manager, Kathy Nguyen has spread the word about conservation through presentations to garden clubs and civic groups. "We were the spokespeople for the drought," Nguyen says. "We probably did more than 250 media interviews - radio, television and print."

There are signs that these sorts of strategies are catching on more broadly. The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, an organization that includes 15 metro Atlanta counties, also is promoting toilet rebates, and it's ramping up "conservation pricing" throughout the region - where water becomes more expensive the more a customer uses. The Georgia Water Contingency Task Force offered a mountain of recommendations that may likely lead to state legislation this year. Many of the ideas are the sorts of things the state probably should have been doing all along, like getting more aggressive at identifying and fixing leaky pipes.

Still, there are skeptics. "A lot of what you saw in the drought down here was temporary and it wasn't very well implemented," says Gil Rogers, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "It really hurt some water users, and other water users were left to do what they were doing all along." During the drought, the state put in place an outdoor watering ban that devastated the landscaping industry. Other sorts of mandates that could have reduced water consumption weren't tried. For example, a bill to require submeters - water meters in each unit of multifamily housing - languished in the Legislature.

Those decisions fit with Georgia's political culture. The state's conservative Legislature prefers incentives over government mandates, but that preference will be seriously tested in the face of Magnuson's ruling. The Contingency Task Force recommended that, if Lanier truly is out as a water source, the state should employ various mandatory efficiency programs. It even gave tentative support to a ban on outdoor watering during daytime hours - when the most water is lost to evaporation.

Nonetheless, there's a bigger cause for skepticism: Even if Georgia does a splendid job conserving water, it won't be enough. In fact, that's something everyone in the state acknowledges. "Conservation makes the most sense, but we cannot save enough water to meet the 2012 deadline," says Bert Brantley, Perdue's director of communications. "There's no way we can conserve that much." The hope is that Congress and the courts wouldn't actually leave Atlanta without the water it needs. By proving that they're good stewards of their water, officials in metro Atlanta are hoping they'll get relief.

Atlanta, then, is in a lamentable position. A metropolitan region that looked completely in control of its own destiny as it grew is now dependent on the whims of federal courts and Congress. The obvious question is whether other big cities, even ones in water-rich areas, could experience the same fate. Robert Glennon's answer, more or less, is that they already are.

Glennon is a law professor at the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law, as well as the author of . He points to falling water tables around the country that would take perhaps thousands of years to restore, and notes that the United States' ability to add new water supplies is largely tapped out - there aren't more rivers to divert or many places for new reservoirs - yet our population keeps growing. And he notes growing conflict over water. It isn't just Georgia, Alabama and Florida that are battling over water in the supposedly soggy Southeast. North Carolina and South Carolina are in court, fighting over the Catawba River. "We have a crisis right now," Glennon says. "It's not in the future. It's right now."

Not everyone echoes Glennon's dire warnings. Atlanta has unique water disadvantages, including an unusually high elevation for the East Coast (more than 1,000 feet), the lack of a major river, which most cities possess, and runaway population growth. Still, what Glennon's clearly right about is that there has been very little acknowledgement of the nation's future water challenges, from elected officials or the public. Except in a few arid parts of the country, most people treat water as an abundant, almost limitless resource.

That, officials in Georgia say, is something that needs to change. This year's weather has been a cruel joke for metro Atlanta. One of the wettest years on record culminated in September when the region endured serious floods. But all of that rain did nothing to change the looming water scarcity from Magnuson's ruling.

The rain creates one more difficulty for Atlanta-area officials: How do you persuade the public that water efficiency is critical when it always seems to be pouring outside? "It's actually a really big challenge," Nguyen says. "It's probably the biggest challenge."

In effect, the challenge the Atlanta region faces is creating a permanent water conservation ethos - one that can survive both droughts and floods - where it never has existed before. If governments in the Atlanta area can do that, they'll have developed a model for other water-scarce cities to emulate. If they can't, they'll likely have big problems come July 17, 2012.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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