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Bowen: Signs over commodes tell the story
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"Please flush. Atlanta needs the water."

In 1981, these words were scrawled over a commode in a public restroom. They reflected this area’s attitude toward the severe drought of that period. It was a completely different era, especially where young Lake Lanier was concerned.

Local pastors prayed for rain if their churches served farmers, but there was no praying for rain on the Capitol steps.

In December of that year, the Chattahoochee River basin was suffering from a drought. The level of Lake Lanier had dropped 19 feet, leaving 59 boat ramps closed to the public. Only eight of those ramps reached the water.

The boat industry and Lanier’s marinas had almost no business, but one of the marina owners said it wasn’t too bad "because it’s a slow time of the year for us."

A few people purchased metal detectors and looked for treasures on the wide, red dirt stretches that previously had been under water. One man found a gold wedding ring.

This big difference in public reaction can be attributed to many changes. First, the population of Hall County has more than doubled in the 26 years since that record-setting drought. Atlanta’s population in the 13-county metropolitan area has increased 164 percent. The commodes, washing machines, dishwashers, lawn sprinklers and showers used by these masses have tripled the use of water by individuals.

Everything in the business world has doubled and tripled. Today’s increase in commercial car washes reminds me that, in 1981, any Clayton resident who washed his car was fined $100.

But Lake Lanier produces more than shower power. Release of its water at Buford Dam produces electric lights, operation of computers, cooking of biscuits, broadcasts of television programs and much more.

Demand from the increased population is not the only thing causing the change in attitude. A number of laws have been passed affecting the use of our water.

Back then, it was not necessary to get a state permit to withdraw water from Lanier or any surface stream. The mayor of Cumming assured his people that they didn’t have to worry about their water supply because the city had purchased three portable pumps capable of drawing 3 million gallons a day from the shrinking lake. He didn’t have to worry about rejection of a permit application.

Looking back, there appears to be one reason that almost nothing was said about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ management of the lake. The corps was not tied down by laws explicitly defining outflows; executives could make their own decisions and Lanier’s outflow was reduced without a whimper or a lawsuit.

But after that time, someone discovered a suffering mussel in Florida, and we know the rest of the story. Much of the water in Lake Lanier must go to these invertebrates, these animals without backbones. (And up to this time we thought backbones were an asset.)

I’d like to stop here, but in fairness it must be said that both Alabama and Florida say their regional economies depend on fresh water released from Lanier and flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, Northeast Georgia’s economy depends on Lake Lanier being full or close to it. These two states and Georgia are expecting the courts to determine each state’s share of Lake Lanier’s water.

In a White County business this past weekend, I saw another hand-lettered sign over a commode. This sign said, "We are trying to conserve water. If possible, please share your flush with a friend."

These two vastly different handwritten signs over public commodes exactly describe the attitudes then and now.

Such severe droughts can become life-threatening, and focusing on commodes is not a very serious way of describing their effect. But as I think about an image to represent the problem, I think about all those residents who gave up 50,000 acres, some of it good farmland and some of it had been the family homeplace for generations. Some of these homeowners were heartbroken and, as long as the courts allowed, they fought against the taking of their property. I think of eventual rain and Lake Lanier’s full surface area of 38,000 acres sprinkled with watercraft and skiers plus picnickers around its edge.

If we let Alabama and Florida win control of our beloved lake, if we fail to meet high standards in water quality, if we fail to do everything possible to conserve water, the commode image is appropriate.

Alma Bowen is a previous editor of The Times. She was the paper’s features editor in 1981 when the lake hit its previous low.