Monday, November 05, 2007

Atlanta is Running Out of Water

How Poor Planning and an Unfortunate Nod from Mother Nature contributed to a Potential Catastrophe



For America’s Deep South, Atlanta Georgia is what the Emerald City was to the land of OZ. First built in 1837 as Terminus, Atlanta later rose from the ashes of the civil war to become the land where Peachtree met CoCa Cola. Later, in the early 1960’s as the winds of change blew storms of resistance throughout much of the South, Atlanta leaders chose compromise over conflict, almost progressive when compared to some its neighbors, especially competitor cities like Birmingham where fire hoses, bombs and police dogs became symbols of all that was wrong with the region.

Atlanta’s conflict free transition through the civil rights movement, planted the seeds for its current role as the South’s economic center. By the 1980’s the city was growing faster than kudzu as investors and business interests helped attract residents to the area’s low cost of living and warm climate. But the arms of expansion extended well beyond the glass towers of downtown, sprawling out some 60 miles in either direction presenting infrastructural challenges common to uncontrolled growth. Still, bigger highways and construction along with other solutions kept Atlanta’s economic engine churning. That is, until a once in a lifetime drought threatened the regions most precious natural resource.

Within a matter of months, Atlanta could run out of water.

Without some sort of intervention, Atlanta’s main source of water, the 38,000 acre Lake Sydney Lanier could go dry in three months according to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Unit. That means if a slow moving tropical storm doesn’t settle over Georgia, or drastic measures aren’t taken, Atlanta’s water faucets could soon spew air. In addition, public utilities in Alabama and Georgia may be forced to reduce production of power and the Apalachicola Bay in Florida might see the death of millions of mussels and other wildlife. But perhaps it’s the un-spoken nightmare scenario, a Katrina like disaster that has observers and advocates most worried as the sense of urgency and blame begins to sink in over the South.

Almost 30 percent of the south is now covered by what is called an “exceptional drought”, the National Weather Service’s absolute worst category. One result has been the rekindling of a long running dispute over water between Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Water from Lake Lanier, channeled through dams on the Chattahoochee River provide water not only to around 3 million people in metro Atlanta, but also industry and residents in Alabama and much of the marine life in Apalachicola Bay Florida. A number of those on the end of the water flow are blaming Atlanta’s over development and its apparent slow reaction to the potentially catastrophic conditions.

After a brutal drought over the summer, Atlanta leaders finally did order a ban on all outdoor watering that took effect on September 28, 2007.

Still, Alabama Governor Bob Riley told the “Washington Post” this past month that “Atlanta can’t spend all summer during a drought watering their lawns and flowers and then expect someone else to bail them out.”

But, what exactly defines Atlanta anyway?

Unlike most major metropolitan areas, Atlanta is not located on a major body of water. For those unconcerned about the negatives of sprawl, that has in the past been considered a positive impact on development. As a 1998 Federal Reserve Bank regional update report detailing Atlanta’s Housing growth seemed to say, the expanse of land surrounding Atlanta’s core was ripe for development.

Titled, What is Fueling Atlanta’s Housing Growth the FRB report noted that Atlanta’s growth area is “unlimited” thanks to “the lack of nearby natural barriers like large bodies of water, mountains or major federal land holdings. The same report went on to say that the area “can continue growing and expanding into fringe areas with cheaper land for some time.”

Expansion continued with sub-divisions filled mostly single family homes sprang up across hundreds of square miles of former farmland and forests creating what some have called America’s poster child of Suburban Sprawl, areas of low density development spread over wide areas typified by single family homes and commutes by automobile to work.

According to the United States Census Department the Atlanta Metropolitan area now consists of around 6,000 square miles that include 28 counties with a population of around 4 million which compares to 1970 when the metro area had 1.9 million residents living on 1,730 square miles of land. The actual city of Atlanta’s population has hovered at only around 400,000. Metropolitan Atlanta’s population density remains low at around 700 people per square Km. compared which compared to New York City’s metropolitan area is dramatic at 2,050.

In addition to the 28 county governments there are around 65 somewhat autonomous municipal government bodies.

The reality of disconnection and separation illustrated by a greater Atlanta now spreads over a hundred miles in every direction, defined by rings, perimeters and super rings allowed for a psychology of negligence when it came to uniform environmental concerns including water supply.

A report from the “New Georgia Encyclopedia” stated that 67 percent of Georgia’s monitored waters do not meet water quality standards. That report said that the area’s waters are threatened by pollution associated with poor development practices and urban storm water runoff. It also said, that the water quality of the Chattahoochee River, the river where half of Georgia gets its water is threatened by rampant suburban growth and inadequate or aging water and sewer systems, runoff from paved surfaces, agricultural lands and lawns erosion from construction sites and seepage from septic tanks. One million metro Atlanta area residents still use septic tanks which is more than any other major American metropolitan area.

It’s clear, that now, as frightening potentialities flood newspapers, websites and newscasts, investments need to be made in the bones of the body of the Atlanta area.

According to a study and report by American Rivers, The Natural Resources Council and Smart Growth America there are efficient, cost effective approaches that policy makers in cohesion with developers and communities could take to help remedy the threats now faced by Atlanta. They include measures like allocating more resources to identify and protect open space and critical aquatic areas, sound growth management, comprehensive legislation that includes incentives for smart growth, integrating water supply into planning efforts by coordinating road building and other construction with water resource management, managing storm water among others.

They say that what is needed is the political will to see them through to fruition.

Steve Davis, a spokesperson at Smart Growth America, said most of the regional planning that might result in uniform implementation of smart planning that impact water had finally started to happen, but, unfortunately, mostly without teeth.

“Most of the efforts to consider water supplies as part of the long range comprehensive planning consisted only of “suggestions” as to approval or denial, but local plans still have no mandatory requirement for projecting the effects on water in the area,” he said.

It’s clear now, that Atlanta must act, as should the Federal and State Governments. The spirit of what made Atlanta a beacon of progress and opportunity for all now faces great peril, thanks to an unfortunate nod from Mother Nature coupled with a lack of human ingenuity, cooperation and perhaps patience. This is a time, when Atlanta, must take a break from being busy and figure out how it can plan for its future.

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