Saturday, October 20, 2007

Looming water wars

It's all about water and the battle lines are being drawn. The ice is melting in the Arctic at an alarming rate. The Northwest Passage is now open. At least four nations are feuding over who has rights to the oil and minerals the melting now makes accessible. At the same time, the U.S. Southeast is experiencing its worst drought on record. Rivers are drying up and neighboring states are engaged in legal battles over water rights.

These events are precursors to the kinds of scenarios we can expect to be played out around the globe if nation's don't hurry and do all that they can to minimize the impacts of climate change. It is irresponsibly naive for government officials to suggest that the world will be able to peacefully "adapt"to this (rapidly) unfolding crisis. (GW)

Southeast withers from 16 months of drought woes

ATLANTA — The largest metro area in the Southeast should have seen it coming.

Atlanta has long relied on 38,000-acre Lake Lanier north of the city to supply its tap water. But as Georgia became one of the nation's fastest-growing states, its capital grew to more than 4.5 million people, and the '50s-era reservoir simply could not keep up.

"Atlanta is one of the largest metropolitan areas on one of the smallest watersheds in the country," says Jill Johnson of Georgia Conservation Voters. "As we've continued to grow, our demand has increased. So there are more people using more water than ever before. But the amount of water available to us in the watershed didn't change."

Atlanta sought to increase its water draw from Lake Lanier in 1989. The state unveiled a plan for 12 new reservoirs on the Chattahoochee River to supply future needs. After years of eyeing Atlanta's increasing thirst, neighboring Alabama and Florida sued to protect their own water needs downstream.

The "Tri-State Water War" has been winding through the courts ever since. Elements of it are reflected in today's water crisis across the Southeast as what is normally one of the wettest regions of the USA withers under a 16-month spell of exceptional dryness.

As water levels drop, long-simmering tensions between cities, towns and states are exposed. Communities are turning to federal water authorities for help, asking them to make changes on some of the streams they control.

A two-state committee working to protect water supplies on the South Carolina-Georgia border that come from the Savannah River basin has urged the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow from several reservoirs upstream to levels not normally set until mid-December. At a recent meeting, some South Carolinians fretted that Atlanta might try to tap the Savannah River reservoirs. The head of Georgia's delegation, state environmental commissioner Carol Couch, tried to reassure people that such action would be illegal.

And tensions between the two Carolinas over North Carolina's diversion of water from the Catawba River for the towns of Concord and Kannapolis are now playing out in the U.S. Supreme Court, says South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster.

In Atlanta, the Corps of Engineers has emerged as the designated villain in the water crisis. The corps, which says the law requires that it release billions of gallons a day from Lake Lanier to protect endangered species, is not the only culprit, Johnson says.

She says the problem is compounded by other factors: the cheap price of water in Atlanta, still very low despite conservation-tiered rates in some communities; antiquated plumbing systems and devices that use more water than modern low-flow ones; water-intensive landscaping; and an 18% loss in the water system metrowide.

There's still ample opportunity for conservation, says Kathy Nguyen, water conservation coordinator for suburban Cobb County. "We have a lot of low-hanging fruit. There hasn't been a conservation effort across Georgia, so there's a lot that can be done to get a significant water savings."

Meanwhile, drought-related woes are reaching all corners of the Southeast. Even in Florida, where a soggy September helped, months-old limits on watering lawns and washing cars remain. Lake Okeechobee, the backup water supply for metropolitan South Florida, is still 5 feet below normal.

Farmers from Virginia to Alabama are selling cattle they normally would keep over winter because pastures have dried up and hay is too costly. Some growers of grain, cotton, peanuts and soybeans aren't planting or may quit. Laundromats and commercial car washes from North Carolina to Tennessee are cutting hours or shutting down. Nurseries and landscapers in Georgia, hit by watering bans, are losing trees and plants and reducing inventory. Golf courses everywhere are sprinkling only tees and greens.

John Imand of Gaffney, S.C., doesn't mind the drought. His business, Always Green Grass Painting, paints the lawns of homes and businesses for $250-$700 and has spread to a dozen franchises.

Utilities that take their supply from rivers, lakes and reservoirs are planning to modify their intake pipes to reach the water level as it recedes. Levels are so low at dams along major rivers in Alabama that hydroelectricity production at Alabama Power Co.'s plants is at an all-time low.

Elsewhere in the region:


This month, 96% of the state's farmland has insufficient topsoil moisture, says Elaine Lidholm of the state agriculture department. With hurricane season nearing an end, no one expects relief before winter.


Rainfall is about 11 inches below normal, a condition not seen since 1930. "It hasn't been this dry in my — or even my father's — memory," says farmer Bob Wade Jr. of Sonora, whose soybean crop is half what he had hoped. His brother's well went dry weeks ago.

•South Carolina:

There are no statewide drought limits, but 16 water systems have banned outdoor watering and car washing, and 22 others have asked for voluntary curbs, state climatologist Hope Mizzell says.

•North Carolina:

The worst drought in the state's history has left cattle farmers short on hay. Some communities are down to a three-month water supply, Gov. Mike Easley says. Bill Yarborough, a state agronomist, expects increased costs for nursery plants, turf and even Christmas trees.

The dryness is beyond the Southeast. This week's federal Drought Monitor shows all 50 states with some level of dryness or drought, covering 52% of the country. Normal is 30%.

The La Niña climate pattern predicted for this winter bodes more ill, says Mike Hayes director of the National Drought Mitigation Center: "Typical La Niñas are dry across the southern U.S., from California to the East Coast."

O'Driscoll reported from Denver

Contributing: Jordan Schrader, Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times; Marty Roney, The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser; Leon Alligood, The Tennessean in Nashville; Ron Barnett, The Greenville (S.C.) News; Jessie Halladay, The Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal; Matt Reed, Florida Today in Melbourne, Fla.; Jennie Coughlin, The Daily News Leader in Staunton, Va.


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