The time for action in solving the state's water crisis is long past. Now that we are mired in another serious drought that threatens the future of our water supply, it's time not for caution but for serious measures.
Those finally may be on the way. Following last week's dour report on Lake Lanier water levels from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a meeting of the drought task force, the Environmental Protection Division imposed a mandatory outdoor watering ban Friday for 61 counties in northern and western Georgia, including Hall and its neighbors.
What that means is that the odd-even, every-other-day system we've been under for some time is gone. Also gone is the patchwork of restrictions from one city or county to another. It means no outdoor watering, period. No sprinklers on lawns, no washing the car in the driveway, nothing.
And it's long overdue. The watering restrictions in place were hard for local authorities to enforce and confusing to residents. What day is it? Can I water today or not, and for how long? The lack of comprehensive, easy-to-follow guidelines, along with the absence of strictly enforced penalties for violators, meant the restrictions were ignored by many.
Anyway, brown lawns should be the least of our concerns. Having clean water pour from our taps for drinking, bathing and cooking is a much higher priority, one we should no longer take for granted.
Sure, we've rebounded from droughts before. The rains have returned, the lakes and rivers have refilled, and we've gone about our merry way convinced that the panic was all for naught.
But we may be well past that. Consider a few sobering facts:
Lake Lanier is now down 12 feet from full pool of 1,071 feet. The Corps predicts it will drop to 1,054 feet by mid-October, some 17 feet below full pool, and is threatening to reach its all-time low of 1,052 feet set in 1981.
In fact, the EPD predicts the lake could drop as low as 1,039 feet by year's end, a full 32 feet below full pool and close to or below many water intake pipes.
It would take several months of above-average rainfall to put a dent in our yearly deficit of 15 inches. Yet forecasters say dry weather should continue through autumn and into 2008.
Docks are high and dry, muddy shorelines are spreading and long-covered lake obstacles are beginning to peek above the waves. Marinas are pulling boats out of the water before they bottom out, and boat ramps are closed because they no longer offer access to deep enough water.
Lanier at its best draws some 8 million tourists each year and feeds around $5.5 billion to the local economies. But fewer visitors are likely to flock to an evaporating mudhole to spend their tourist dollars.
As less rainfall flows into Lanier, more treated wastewater is being added. Though technology has helped make it nearly potable, it needs to mix with fresh, clean water. Otherwise it can raise levels of bacteria that can harm wildlife and the lake's health, and even can affect the taste of drinking water.
While water supply diminishes, demand increases. Growing communities are drawing water from the lake and river, putting a greater strain on the reservoir's ability to meet their needs.
Runaway growth means more houses and businesses slurping up more water when less is available.
And we still haven't solved the issue of how much water should be released downstream from Lanier through the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola system. Communities in middle Georgia and eastern Alabama want their share of the liquid pie to fill their lakes for water, recreation, power and navigation. And folks in Florida at the end of the river system still want their precious mussels in the Gulf of Mexico to get the fresh water they need to survive. The political wrangling has continued for nearly two decades, with no final solution in sight.
Yes, it's time to clamp down. Long since past. And to consider measures we haven't dared think about before.
Mostly what we need is stronger enforcement of the rules. Local law officers have their hands full trying to deal with violent crimes, burglaries and traffic concerns. It should fall to state authorities to launch an enforcement program to guarantee compliance with the watering ban. The only way to do that is with clear punitive measures for those who violate them.
The state legislature should weigh in to help fund the EPD's enforcement needs. Perhaps it could use some of the current budget surplus -- the one the legislature and governor's office have been pulling at from opposite ends like two kids fighting over a toy -- to help fund a more stringent water conservation program.
The state also could impose stiff water-use fees on developers, just as local communities now levy impact fees to pay for roads, schools and sewer. Local jurisdictions need to make water demand a key element in deciding whether to approve new residential or commercial growth.
Commercial water use should be monitored to see if alternatives, such as treated wastewater, can be substituted for clean, drinking water in some industrial uses. Businesses that explore this possibility and show a willingness to conserve should be given tax breaks as an incentive.
And, in the end, we all may have to pay more for the water we use. We fuss when we pony up $3 for a gallon of gasoline, yet think nothing of slipping a dollar-plus into a vending machine for a bottle of cold water. Perhaps we should be mindful that what we get out of the tap is just as valuable and increasingly harder to come by.
The general notion that we can carry on business as usual without a greater sense of shared sacrifice needs to end. We grow too complacent on too many fronts, water being one that directly affects North Georgians now and in the near future. We can't keep passing the buck and expect the problem to go away with the next brief shower.
North Georgia is drying up. Unless we do something about it soon, our economic growth and our high quality of life could dry up as well.
Originally published Sept. 30, 2007