Atlanta absorbs water like a sponge : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Atlanta's insatiable water needs ripple across South

By Justin Bachman Associated Press

ATLANTA -- From the Appalachian foothills to the plains near the Alabama line, metropolitan Atlanta keeps expanding every day with more offices, stores and homes that need sprinklers, sinks and bathtubs.

This ever-growing mass of 4.1 million people -- the South's largest -- absorbs water like a sponge, leaving towns and farms downstream to make do with the leftovers. That's tough enough when rainfall is normal; it's nearly impossible when the landscape becomes parched, as it has for the past three summers. Repercussions of Atlanta's growth can be felt hundreds of miles away, from irrigation ditches in southern Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico, where Florida's mollusk industry is threatened.

Atlantans sometimes don't realize or care how their water use effects others. Cars are still washed, pools remain filled and golf course sprinklers -- on timers designed to circumvent water restrictions -- start pumping in the wee hours of the morning.

''I'm not greedy ... but certainly it would be nice to have some to wash my car every month or so and and at least enough to keep my lawn alive,'' said Peter Cullinan, a Lilburn resident who says the water restrictions have left his car caked with pollen and his lawn ragged.

''I've spent some money in the past year on my lawn and I'd like to see it looking decent. Hey, that goes down to the property value, you know?'' Unlike most large cities, Atlanta -- which started as a railroad terminus -- grew without a large natural water source. Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona were built after World War II to provide electricity and water to the metropolis.

''This was a very foolish place to build a major metropolitan area,'' quipped Bryan Hager, a Georgia Sierra Club official. Still, until very recently, there was more than enough water to go around, and Atlanta officials concentrated on other keys needed for growth -- airport expansion, highways and power plants.

''This whole subject of finite water supply is something that's new to the Southeast,'' said Jim Campbell, an Anniston, Ala., attorney who represents Alabama in 4-year-old talks with Georgia and Florida about how to allocate water that flows to all three states.

''Out in the wild, wild West, battles over water rights have been going on since the turn of the century,'' he said. ''We don't even have a concept of water rights in Georgia law, Alabama law or Florida law.''

Such a concept is quickly developing as folks downstream tire of Atlanta's insatiable thirst. Eleven years ago, Alabama sued the Army Corps of Engineers, alleging that the agency failed to consider downstream needs in its regulation of releases from the Lanier and Allatoona.

Since then, the states have worked to craft a regional water-management plan to divide up the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin and the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) river basin. Both systems begin in Georgia and pass through metro Atlanta before flowing to Alabama and Florida.

In December, Alabama and Georgia agreed to a 30-year agreement that limits how much water Atlanta-area water systems can pump from the river basins. As part of the deal, Georgia is permitted to build a regional reservoir, but Alabama is guaranteed a flow of 25 percent of the average annual daily flow out of the reservoir.

The compact is awaiting conclusion of talks with Florida concerning the ACT river basin. Florida officials are fearful that reduced flows from the Chattahoochee, which becomes the Apalachicola and runs into the Gulf, could harm the Panhandle-based oyster industry.

Earlier this month, Gov. Roy Barnes signed into law the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, which will develop regional water plans that local governments must obey. The agency is charged with developing solutions for handling wastewater, considering conservation steps and proposing laws for storm water management. Also this year, the Legislature created a study committee to develop a comprehensive water management plan for the entire state.

For their part, environmentalists contend that Georgia has plenty of water for metro Atlanta and everyone else for the next 30 to 50 years or longer -- but only if political leaders and others adopt serious conservation measures.

''The stumbling block now is habit,'' Hager said. ''Dumb growth has been the national model now for 80 years.'' Conservation is quickly becoming the new buzzword around Atlanta as politicians and bureaucrats say development and responsible water use can no longer be viewed as opposing interests.

''The recent drought and the talks with the states about water resource allocation have brought this question to a sharp focus,'' said Aris Georgakakos, director of the Georgia Water Resources Institute at Georgia Tech. ''So I think everyone realizes it's a good time to rethink how we manage water.''

Georgakakos said the lengthy drought appears to be waning somewhat in northern Georgia, but southwestern Georgia's Flint River basin isn't likely to see relief until 2002. Murray Campbell, a Mitchell County peanut and cotton grower, said the drought may be a blessing in disguise, because it forced people to talk about managing water. Farmers, nervous that the metro area water use will impact irrigation in south Georgia, simply ''want to make sure we're at the table,'' he said. ''Atlanta does have a problem coming, but I think if we're wise we can deal with it.'' This article published in the Athens Daily News on Monday, April 23, 2001.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 23, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ