Water Wars


With the Southeast growing increasingly parched, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama are embroiled in a bitter row over access to Lake Lanier, the 38,000-acre reservoir that supplies the three states with much of their water. The streams feeding the lake have slowed to a trickle, but demand for water is higher than ever; the imbalance has led the lake’s water levels to drop 15 feet, and some say it could dry up altogether in fewer than 90 days.

In response, Georgia’s Gov. Sonny Perdue has sought to slash the rate at which water is released to preserve supplies for the 55 percent of Georgians who rely on Lake Lanier for their drinking water. Rationing could be a disaster, though, for those further downstream: Georgia’s leftovers irrigate crops and preserve fish stocks in Alabama and Florida, where local leaders say Georgia shouldn’t be allowed to hog the supply.

They’ve got a point: While global warming precipitated the southeast’s water crisis, it was Georgia’s poor planning that tipped the situation over the edge. The Peach State’s population is booming at double the national rate, but local officials have been lulled into complacency by Atlanta’s position at the Lanier headwaters, and have done little to promote or plan for water conservation.

A million homes in the Atlanta area still have outdated plumbing rather than the low-flow fixtures required of new constructions; worse still, more than half of new suburban developments are still being built with wasteful septic tanks instead of sewers that would allow reprocessing of waste water. Meanwhile, years of under-investment have taken their toll: every day, almost a fifth of Atlanta’s water leaks away without being used.

Of course, Georgia’s bad planning is merely one instance of a much wider problem. Across the country, developers are rushing to build houses, factories, farms and power plants, without considering the limited resources available to them. Even as droughts and wildfires sweep the country, there’s little sign that things will change: This month, New Mexico’s Gov. Bill Richardson suggested in all seriousness that water from the Great Lakes should be piped south to allow for even more rapid growth.

Back in Georgia, meanwhile, officials are finally embracing water conservation: Public fountains have been turned off, restaurants have been told to serve water only on request, and residents have been asked to take shorter showers. So far, though, there’s still no long-term strategy for dealing with the state’s water addiction. “I’m going to be praying for rain,” said Gov. Perdue as he left the tri-state negotiations yesterday. So, it seems, should we all.

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