Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Ignoring a coming crisis doesn’t seem to work

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Though they sure gave it a good try in Georgia. I don’t see much planning or action in the Southwest on what they will do when the water runs out. I suppose the idea is, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Perhaps people think that water can be created just by passing some legislation. The government has ignored global warming and its likely effects for a long, long time, and now time is running out.

ATLANTA, Oct. 22 — For more than five months, the lake that provides drinking water to almost five million people here has been draining away in a withering drought. Sandy beaches have expanded into flats of orange mud. Tree stumps not seen in half a century have resurfaced. Scientists have warned of impending disaster.

And life has, for the most part, gone on just as before.

The response to the worst drought on record in the Southeast has unfolded in ultra-slow motion. All summer, more than a year after the drought began, fountains blithely sprayed, football fields were watered, prisoners got two showers a day and Coca-Cola’s bottling plants chugged along at full strength. In early October, on an 81-degree day, an outdoor theme park began to manufacture what was intended to be a 1.2-million gallon mountain of snow.

In late September, with Lake Lanier forecast to dip into the dregs of “dead storage” in less than four months, the state imposed a ban on outdoor water use. Gov. Sonny Perdue declared October “Take a Shorter Shower Month.”

On Saturday, he declared a state of emergency for more than half the state and asked for federal assistance, though the state has not yet restricted indoor water use or cut back on major commercial and industrial users, a step that could cause a significant loss of jobs.

These last-minute measures belie a history of inaction in Georgia and across the South when it comes to managing and conserving water, even in the face of rapid growth. Between 1990 and 2000, Georgia’s water use increased by 30 percent. But the state has not yet come up with an estimate of how much water is available during periods of normal rainfall, much less a plan to handle the worst-case scenario of dry faucets.

“We have made it clear to the planners and executive management of this state for years that we may very well be on the verge of a system-wide emergency,” said Mark Crisp, a water expert in the Atlanta office of the engineering firm C. H. Guernsey.

The sense of urgency has been slow to take hold. Last year, a bill to require low-flow water devices be installed in older houses prior to resale died in the Legislature. Most golf courses are classified as “agricultural.” Water permits are still approved on a first-come, first-served basis.

And Georgia is not at the back of the pack; Alabama, where severe drought is more widespread, has not passed legislation calling for a management plan.

A realistic statewide plan, experts say, would tell developers that they cannot build if no water is available, and might have restricted some of the enormous growth in the Atlanta area over the last decade. Already, officials have little notion how to provide for a projected doubling of demand over the next 30 years. The ideas that have been floated, including piping water from Tennessee or desalinating ocean water, will require hundreds of billions of dollars and painful decisions the state has been loathe to undertake.

“It’s been develop first and ask questions later,” said Gil Rogers, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Instead, the state has engaged in interminable squabbles with its neighbors over dam releases and flow rates. The latest attempt at mediation with Alabama fell apart just last month. And Georgia officials insist that Atlanta would have plenty of water were it not for the Army Corps of Engineers, which they say has released more water from Lake Lanier than is necessary to protect three endangered species downstream. Last week, Governor Perdue filed for an injunction against the Corps.

“We are not here because we consumed our way into this drought, as some would suggest,” said his director of environmental protection, Carol Couch.

But that is exactly what the state’s critics are suggesting, including many people in Florida, the only state in the region to have adopted a water plan. An editorial Friday in The St. Petersburg Times in Florida, the downstream end of the basin that includes Lake Lanier, retorted that the blame lies not with the Corps but “a record drought, unrestrained population growth and poor water-conservation habits.”

Bruce A. Karas, vice president of sustainability for the Coca-Cola Company, said that no one from the city of Atlanta or its water planning district had approached company officials to ask them to conserve water, though he said Coke has been making efforts to reduce consumption on its own since 2004.

“We’re very concerned,” he said. “Water is our main ingredient. As a company, we look at areas where we expect water abundance and water scarcity, and we know water is scarce in the Southwest. It’s very surprising to us that the Southeast is in a water shortage.”

Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association, said almost 14,000 workers in landscaping and other businesses that depend on planting and watering had lost their jobs.

“This is a precious natural resource and it has not been managed well,” Ms. Woodworth said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re in this situation today. The infrastructure was not in place for the development.”

In 2001, the state did establish the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District for 16 counties and dozens of jurisdictions in the Atlanta area. The district has focused on implementing conservation pricing, under which the price of water increases as more is used, and incentives for replacing inefficient plumbing and monitoring for leaks, a major cause of water loss. Some environmentalists criticize the district, saying its requirements are weak and its progress unmeasured. Its projections, they say, are based on outdated estimate of water availability, provided by the state that does not take into account climate change.

But Pat Stevens, chief environmental planner for the Atlanta Regional Committee, which provides employees to the water district, said the plan is already under revision and the requirements will tighten over time. “You can’t just do this overnight, otherwise you will close businesses,” Ms. Stevens said. “We will out-conservation California, but you know, it takes time.” In January the Legislature will consider a proposal to expand the planning process statewide.

State officials have defended their response, saying the drought got very bad very quickly. And Georgia is not the only state in trouble. The drought has afflicted most of the Southeast, a region that is accustomed to abundant water and tends to view mandatory restrictions as government meddling. Lake Lanier is part of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which forms much of the border between Georgia and Alabama, and then spills into Florida, where it provides a habitat for two types of mussel and a sturgeon that are endangered.

The temptation to blame the Corps of Engineers is strong. Because of years of litigation, the Corps operates the dams under an interim policy driven largely by the need to protect the endangered species of fish and shellfish downstream. Critics say the requirements do not take into account severe dry spells and are not supported by science. Governor Perdue has complained that the water allowed out of the lake is twice what nature would provide under similar circumstances.

Two weekends ago, the Corps added to the pain in North Georgia by increasing the flow out of Lake Lanier even as it was shrinking. It is the only lake in the basin that still has water in what is considered the storage pool, usually the top 60 percent of the lake’s capacity. (Using the remaining water, called “dead storage,” could require different intake mechanisms and more treatment.)

In response to Governor Perdue’s complaints, the Corps has agreed to consult the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which protects endangered species, about modifying flow requirements in the Apalachicola.

With a public anxious over the possibility of running out of water, the Corps has not been the only entity to shoulder blame. On Oct. 1, Stone Mountain Park began to make snow for a winter mountain, hoping to attract children who had never seen the real thing.

The mountain had been planned during the very wet summer of 2005, and the state and county were duly informed, said Christine Parker, a spokeswoman for the park. The state announced the Level 4 drought response on a Friday and, after park officials reviewed the list of exceptions for businesses, snow-blowing began the following Monday, before much of the public had fully grasped the severity of the situation. After the project was ridiculed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it shut down. Only then did the park hear from state environmental authorities.

Stone Mountain had never intended to take a cavalier attitude toward the drought, Ms. Parker said, but had not been given any guidance. “A lot of businesses are having to go out and ask the right questions,” she said, “so they can do the right thing.”

Written by Leisureguy

22 October 2007 at 3:36 pm

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