Friday, November 02, 2007

You don't miss your water ...

"You dont miss your water till the well runs dry
But I believe so strongly with you and I
Can somebody answer me the question why?
You dont miss your water till the well runs dry"

Craig David ("You don't miss your water till the well runs dry")
Forget about canaries and coal mines. No analogies are necessary. Orme, Tennessee has run out of water, and it may (I stress MAY) be one of many "climate-change canaries" that MAY be emerging around the world (including the thawing Arctic, a sinking Bangkok, disappearing lobsters to name a few). The U.S. Southeast is going through one of the most prolonged droughts in history, the consequences of which are most severe.

The following article puts the scientific theory and statistics aside and examines what's happening to this small Tennessee town in human terms. (GW)

Tennessee Town Rations Water: where the well has already run dry

The drought has transformed life in little Orme; the water is trucked in and the taps only work for a few hours every evening.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
October 21, 2007
Orme, Tenn. —- Evening falls much like it always has in this deep mountain cove, home to 140 folks surrounded by hollows so remote you can't really get there from anywhere in Tennessee. You have to slip into Alabama and work your way back up.

The mayor's backyard roosters still crow here as the sun sets. Donkeys across from the firehouse still hee-haw. Billy goats in another yard holler out unholy, un-Old MacDonald yowls.

Yet three years into the harshest drought anybody can remember, something new has been added to these timeless rural routines —- something that could portend metro Atlanta's worst water-shortage nightmare.

Orme is dry: The mountain spring that has supplied it with water for more than a century has been reduced by the record drought to a virtual trickle.

So every other day, a couple of old trucks haul water all morning and afternoon from a country fire hydrant two miles away in Alabama to the town's rusting 17,500-gallon tank, up a dirt lane near the spring on Orme Mountain.

Then each night at 6, Mayor Tony Reames twists a valve wrench one way to unloose water on the town below. Three hours later, he twists it the other way, cutting water off until the next evening.

In between, folks scramble. Dinner is delayed around some tables until families first assemble for a series of in-and-out showers. "We line 'em up like ducks," Jimmy Cash says of his three kids.

Others fill a battery of jugs and pots and buckets, used later for doing laundry or brushing teeth or flushing toilets.

"It just ain't normal," says Ron Wilson, 43, a truck driver with a 16-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son. "It's like rush, rush, rush to get everything done."

Some scramble just to get home in time to catch water. Others aren't so lucky. Jerry Godsby's wife works a late shift at a cast-iron skillet factory. She's often forced when she gets home to plug up the sink, pour out a few gallons of jug water and take a wash-rag bath.

Christina Mount, 24, doesn't even bother. A medic with the Marion County ambulance service, she works 13-hour shifts, six days a week, and rarely gets back to the stone house her grandfather built before the town's water is cut off. So most mornings she rises at 4, instead of 5, and takes a shower at work, or at her gym in Chattanooga, 35 miles east, before starting her shift at 7.

"It's tough, man," says Cash, 30. "Don't take your water for granted."

Teamwork sets in

With its four or five streets, zero businesses and coon-hunt fund-raisers, Orme might seem an unlikely spot for metro Atlanta and the rest of the Southeast to draw lessons during the region's record-busting drought.

But folks here feel like they're already living the worst-case scenario that places such as Charlotte and Atlanta are being warned about.

"I feel for them," Reames, 48, says of other parched Southern cities. "I know what they're fixin' to go through."

Orme used to be a coal mining boomtown of almost 5,000 people, with two schools and a train running straight through it to the mountain.

But as coal petered out, so did Orme. The only relic from those days is the unused, 100-year-old wooden depot. Now Orme is without a single business, its main road barely big enough for two cars to pass at the same time.

Still, most of those who remain wouldn't think of leaving. Dogs run free and so do kids, who still hunt deer in the woods behind their homes and fish in ice-cold creeks.

"I like to sit on my porch and look at the trees and watch the kids run up and down the road, just like we did," Mount says. "Sometimes the kids will knock on the door and ask, 'Can I get a Coke?' And I'll say, 'Go right in.' "

Says Reames: "Just something about these mountains that draws you."

During most of its history, Orme was practically swimming in water. When the spring is running full, it cascades down a limestone wall to form a breathtaking, 200-foot waterfall. Spelunkers come from all over to explore the cave beneath it.

But distress signs started to show a couple years ago. The spring would dry up for about a week, as it had during severe droughts in decades past. But this summer was different. After heavy early rains, clouds abandoned the area.

North in Monteagle, the city's reservoir dropped so low that the town started to mow it. Water shortages closed a school in a nearby county for two days. One local newspaper featured a photo of cattle wandering the woods like desert nomads in search of a drink.

Then Orme's spring gave out. At full capacity, it runs about 60,000 gallons a day. In early August, it dropped to about 7,000 gallons. With almost 5,000 gallons needed just to fill the pipes, there wasn't enough left to push it through to the town's 35 houses.

Bridgeport, Ala., about 15 miles away on the Tennessee River, had run water to a hydrant outside of town, across the state line, and agreed to let Orme tap it for free. So Orme's volunteer fire chief brought out the community's 1961 firetruck, and nearby New Hope provided a driver for its own 1973 tank truck, to start hauling water.

The state's emergency management agency also trucked in jugs of drinking water, as did the nearest Wal-Mart. A tight-knit region grew even closer.

"We're just helping out a neighbor," says New Hope mayor Art Meyers. "A neighbor is not always next door. He might be 20 miles away. But he's still a neighbor."

Yet even in a drought, when it rains it pours.

Last weekend, both trucks broke down at the same time. Before the New Hope truck was repaired on Monday, water was restricted even more. Some people packed up the kids and visited out-of-town relatives to take showers.

Shared fears

"I feel for y'all's mayor," Reames says while turning the water on one evening up on Orme Mountain. "There's a lot of stress with this. I go to bed every night worrying if there'll be enough water tomorrow.

"The mayor of Atlanta is going to find out she better buckle down," he adds. "She'll be huntin' her another city to get a good night's sleep. I get so many calls from people about water, sometimes I just unplug the phone."

Since Aug. 8, Reames and his team have trucked 750,000 gallons to the tank in Orme, at a cost of $8,000 for gas and the driver from New Hope.

People here say they've learned two big lessons: Never take water for granted, and prepare for the long haul. That means realizing things can get more severe than being unable to water your lawn.

Orme's residents "are probably a little heartier than most city dwellers," says Steve Lamb, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency director in Marion County. "If the power goes out, they deal with it. If the water goes out, they deal with it."

The end is in sight. Orme got an emergency federal grant for more than $377,000 to build a waterline that will connect with Bridgeport's system. Pipes have been dropped at the edge of town —- "Looked like Christmas," Mount says of their arrival —- and the job is scheduled to be finished in the next 40 days.

"That should fix this problem here," says Preston Payne, Orme's fire chief. "Unless their water supply goes dry."

Still, water runs deeper in these mountains than a utility pipeline. A lot of folks say they'll miss getting clear spring water through their taps. Some even plan to take jugs up the mountain and dip them in the spring for their drinking water, long after they're hooked up to Bridgeport's system.

But right now, after 10 weeks of watching their spigots cough and wheeze and sputter before giving a great shake and spitting out water only a few hours a day, most say they'll take anything that's wet.

"I'd rather have our water," says Darlene Sitz, 56, a cook at a nearby high school. "But since I can't get no water, anybody's water will do. I'll even take rainwater."


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