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Our Views: Like oil and water
While we grumble over high gas prices, states drought is forgotten but not gone
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"It's the economy, stupid." That old mantra from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign war room is back for another summer run in this year's presidential campaign.

Our economic problems have many causes -- inflation, credit problems, the mortgage crisis, the shrinking dollar -- but the one that hits most of us hardest is the spike in fuel costs. As pump prices climb, so do the costs of food and other necessities. You can't start a conversation with someone these days without a mention of where the best prices can be found and how much we laid out to fill up the family truckster.

But here in Northeast Georgia, we have an onging problem with another type of liquid gold, one just as important to our economy and even more vital to our quality of life.

Water.

Last year, when gasoline was still about $3 a gallon and the economy was chugging along, our attention was on the ongoing drought and Lake Lanier's dropping water level. Much of that focus was on Georgia's effort to keep from releasing more water from Lanier into the Chattahoochee River basin and points south.

Today, a full tank of gas runs us some $15-$20 more, making it issue No. 1 for nearly everyone. But guess what hasn't changed? We're still in a drought, Lanier again is inching toward its low-water mark and the interstate water war remains unresolved.

As crucial as oil is, the problems it presents are more political than climatic. It's not all that hard to come by; it's just hard to get to -- under the ocean floor, in the Alaskan wilderness, or in countries such as Venezuela or Iran run by nutjob dictators. Once those obstacles are cleared, it's just a matter of paying the price for the commodity.

Water is more problematic. It's not buried in the sand or in the hands of unfriendly governments. There just isn't enough of it leaking from the clouds to handle our state's growing population. Short of conserving the water we have, there isn't anything we can do to produce more of it.

And while our nation's economy is powered by fossil fuel, one could argue that the economies of Hall, Forsyth and nearby counties are fueled just as much by water, namely the 38,000 acres of it in Lake Lanier. It has driven the area's prosperity for the past half century.

When healthy, Lanier draws nearly 8 million people a year and tens of millions in tourism dollars. But with lake levels dropping and tourists less willing to burn gas to get here, many businesses that depend on lake visitors are suffering. Also hurting are landscaping firms and nurseries that depend on a steady water supply.

In the past, our region has avoided a direct hit during bad times, largely because our economic base is supported by a diverse array of industries that includes agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. But with commerce on the decline around Lanier, it's going to be ever harder to make up the difference in another sector.

Despite this, we somehow were lulled back into complacency after a winter of near-normal rainfall. Some of us have gone back to washing our cars and taking 20-minute showers, as if the crisis was over.

Well, think again. Rainfall totals are about 9 inches behind for the year. The lake is at 1,055 feet, 16 feet below full pool and just 5 or so shy of the record low reached last November. The U.S. Drought Monitor rates the drought in our area to be "extreme," the next-to-worst ranking on the scale.

Summer storms may have helped quench our parched lawns a bit but they haven't done much to refill the lake. Add the increased summer evaporation and we're not even breaking even, though the Army Corps of Engineers has kept Buford Dam releases to a minimum.

Though a lack of rain is the root cause of the problem, political reaction has been less than swift or decisive. The ongoing dispute over how much water Alabama and Florida should get from the Chattahoochee for power plants and shellfish appears headed to federal court. If the courts side with our neighbors, heavier water releases will have to be reinstated, pouring out more of our dwindling lake water.

The Georgia General Assembly convened in January fully aware of the growing crisis. Its first reaction was a bizarre and pointless push to redraw the state line with Tennessee so we could drop some siphons into the Tennessee River. Only in the closing hours of the legislative session was a bill passed that would speed up creation of reservoirs in North Georgia to alleviate the pressure on our single water source.

But just as drilling for oil in Alaska won't yield immediate dividends, neither will new reservoirs. It takes time to acquire the land, build dams and fill the basins with water. Their effect on water supply is years, not months, away.

We need short-term solutions as well. So it's time for us to wake up and starting working harder at conserving water, today.

In the meantime, we can find ways around our fuel problems. Already, Americans and the free market are adjusting to high gas prices with lower-mileage cars, commuter options and alternative fuels. While these all have their pluses and minuses, at least they offer us choices.

But there is no substitute for water. We can't get more of it by squeezing corn or putting up windmills. We need it to drink, to bathe, to wash our clothes and dishes, to irrigate our trees and crops and to put out fires. And we need it to fuel our local economy by bringing visitors to Lake Lanier. When the shores are muddy and gas prices are high, folks stay home and we all suffer for it.

That oil and water mix is giving the local economy fits right now. Let's just make sure we don't put so much effort into trying to save the former that we forget to conserve the latter as well.

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