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Our views: The drought drama
Whos to blame: Corps, mussels or ourselves?
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As the drought deepens and the state's water crisis gets more severe, the fingers have been pointing every which way.

Beyond the fact that North Georgia is some 16 inches below normal rainfall for the year, dropping Lake Lanier about that same amount below full pool, many seem intent on naming a villain in this ongoing drama.

To many state leaders, the guys in the black hats are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They continue to release more water from Buford Dam into the Chattahoochee River than most deem necessary, largely to meet the needs of others well downstream. That includes water usage and power plants in western Georgia, eastern Alabama and northern Florida.

And don't forget those pesky mussels, who suck up our precious fresh water as they wallow without a care in the mouth of the Apalachicola River. Some suggest, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that we ought to go down there and get those little buggers.

Back to reality, the corps has been blasted from all sides for releasing water from Lanier at such high volume. Last week, even as Gov. Sonny Perdue threatened a lawsuit to stop the deluge, the corps announced it would actually increase the releases to meet downstream needs.

Arrogant? Out of touch? Or just following orders?

You see, the mussels are a protected species under federal law. Only a direct order from the Army commanders or perhaps the president can change the corps' mandate. Sonny Perdue doesn't have enough brass on his lapels to make that call.

The governor, joined by state leaders and Georgia's congressional delegation, announced Saturday that he has asked both a federal judge and President Bush to force the corps to stop wasting Georgia's most threatened resource. If they get their way, the mussels will get no love, and less water, from the Peach State in the foreseeable future, at least until the clouds open up.

Bluster aside, it makes sense to force the corps' hand, even if those hands are tied by federal regulations. As soon as someone in authority orders the gates shut, it will happen, whether that command comes from the courts, the Pentagon or the White House.

But that move alone likely won't solve the problem. Even with less water rushing past metro Atlanta to points south, there isn't enough in Lanier to sustain the needs of 5 million-plus people forever without a break from the weather.

And this is where the real culprit must be revealed. For years, demographers and others have warned that unchecked growth in North Georgia and Atlanta threatens our natural resources. Now that crisis is at hand, and the water we took for granted for so long because it was so plentiful is not any more.

Thousands of new homes, hundreds of businesses and dozens of golf courses have slurped up more than Lanier and the Chattahoochee can yield.

As that sage cartoon possum Pogo once remarked, we have met the enemy and he is us.
We, meaning those of us who live, vote and drink the water in our beloved state, turned a blind eye toward the inevitable dilemma we now face. Do we save our economy or save our water? We may do neither, for the former won't grow without the latter.

In our quest to grow our neighborhoods and our commercial tax base, we gambled away too much of our water. We fretted over the increase in traffic, the need to build new schools and hospitals, and the inevitable overcrowding of our bucolic mountain paradise, all the while forgetting that the biggest vice of runaway growth is its insatiable thirst.

Now our lawns are parched, businesses are facing cutbacks or worse, and the prospect of a winter with only occasional showers and laundry is none too pleasant. All because we let too many people inhabit an area on a river system that we only now see can't sustain them.

But what can we do now? Those 5 million people are here and they aren't leaving any time soon. We can't shove that genie back in the bottle. We allowed growth to bring us a robust economy, expanding job base and diverse quality of life. Yet we knew of the downsides and now we have to deal with one of them.

So let's quit pointing fingers, already, and deal with it. That starts with conserving water.

There are some good guys in this melodrama. Many residents have offered their tips and a willingness to do their part. For every knucklehead who insists on watering shrubs in the dead of night, more of our neighbors are giving up the convenience of a flowing tap in order to keep less water from spilling needlessly down the drain.

We applaud those who have done their part to save water, and hope all will join. As we've found in other instances, from natural disasters to wars and terrorist attacks, Americans are at their best when things are at their worst. We know how to come together in the spirit of community and work out our problems.

Meanwhile, of all the state officials caught in the vortex of the storm last week, the coolest head, and perhaps toughest job, may belong to Environmental Protection Division Director Carol Couch. While others huff and puff and scramble to make speeches, she focuses on solutions. After declaring a level four drought several weeks ago that imposed a regional outdoor watering ban, Couch now is prepared to take it to the next level and force cutbacks in commercial water use.

After that, who knows? Rationing of water for residential use could be the last resort. Run up too much flow on your meter and the state shuts you off, hits you with a big fine or both. Pitch in and join the conservation effort or else. There really is no other choice.

Beyond that, let's hope that if any other good comes from this event, it is a hard lesson learned. The rains eventually will return and the lake will refill; it has before and will again. But will we still take it for granted? Or will we treat our water with the respect it deserves by using it judiciously? Will we put the brakes on the orgy of construction that brings more people to our area than we can manage? Will we remember the Great Drought of 2007 (and perhaps 2008) and act wisely?

Time will tell. Keep in mind that though the rains may return, so will another drought. We've been on this roller coaster for awhile, and the ride isn't over yet. All we know for sure is that when the ride starts getting tough, some folks brace for it, some work to find answers and others just look around for someone to blame.

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