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Growth, growth everywhere but not a drop to drink

Business and political leaders know who to blame for the water crisis -- and it's not us

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There's nothing like a drought of biblical proportions to get everyone singing from the same hymnal.

In a region famous for its divisions, leaders from Mayor Shirley Franklin and Gov. Sonny Perdue to the Metro Chamber and the Atlanta Regional Commission faulted the same culprit last week for local water woes: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A little more than a year ago, they pointed out, the Corps admitted it had accidentally released 22 billion gallons of water from Lake Lanier – a goof-up that played no small role in the reservoir's current near-record low levels. Local officials were blaming the Corps for releasing more water over the last few weeks to sustain two endangered mussel species and a power plant in Florida. And, with the National Weather Service predicting a dry winter, they're virtually apoplectic that the federal agency thumbed its nose at the region last week by saying it was obligated to send even more water past metro Atlanta.

Yet with all the finger pointing – as well as legal threats being lobbed at the Corps from Georgia – there was little appetite for self-criticism. The message to residents: Blame the Corps. Conserve immediately. Don't ask too many questions.

"What's not being talked about is the growth and the consumption – the wasteful, wasteful use of water in metro Atlanta," says Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

Metro water utilities say conservation efforts during the drought have cut consumption by 15 percent to 20 percent. But Bethea argues that state and business leaders have been watching the North Georgia water crisis develop for years – and were slow to respond with a watering ban when it finally did come.

She says the state must now push the kind of effective measures that leaders should have had the guts to adopt years ago. Among them: Ban daytime watering permanently. Get more local governments to price water to discourage heavy users. Spend more money on fixing leaky public water lines.

More than anything, she argues, the state needs to get a better handle on the development that's spread 3 million new people over the last three decades across a region that has surprisingly limited water supplies.

"You look at the 'metro growth industry,' as they call themselves, and the attitude has basically been unrestricted water for unrestricted growth," Bethea says. "And so the way we have grown in metro Atlanta has made the situation even worse."

In a state whose development industry is woven tightly into its power structure, challenging that industry's status quo is a tall order. And opposition to aggressive water conservation is deeply rooted among business and political leaders.

One need look no further than a bureaucratic fight last year over a proposed regulation that older homes be retrofitted with low-flow plumbing devices when they're resold. An estimated 1 million houses are still running on old-fashioned, less-efficient plumbing. Faced with opposition from the real-estate industry and pressure from state lawmakers, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District backed down from its proposal.

Not surprisingly, pro-development interest groups are quite a bit more sanguine about the way the state's been handling its water woes.

"I'm certainly glad we got the expertise in Georgia to handle the problems," says Ed Phillips, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Georgia. "The governor's stepping up. Leadership in both parties are stepping up. We've got a multitude of people who've got great knowledge trying to work this out."

But the water crisis – much like Atlanta's transportation problems – seems likely to raise new questions about the state's laissez-faire approach to development. Even some people who benefit from development are joining the usual environmentalist choir in questioning whether the region's growth patterns are sustainable.

"What got us into this was the enormous amount of development without infrastructure," says Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association, a group that normally finds itself aligned with developers. "It's wonderful to have a great quality of life and affordable housing, but there's got to be better planning. What's different about this drought than all the others? There's a lot more people."

Alan Toney, chairman of the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District, notes that the kind of development – not just the amount – can have an impact on water demand. Residents of mixed-use, high-density projects are likely to use less water per person, for example, than are those who opt for big houses on big lots with big lawns. And even on those big lots, xeriscaping – designing landscapes around plants that don't need to be watered as often – can save water.

It's not as if nothing's been done to address the region's water issues. The Legislature created the metro water planning district six years ago to deal with water supplies in 16 North Georgia counties. But the agency's had mixed success.

In 2003, the district approved a plan for water use that projected enough water until 2030 – so long as conservation measures were put in place, reservoirs were built and the area received more water from Lake Lanier. But building more reservoirs and pumping more water from Lake Lanier raise environmental questions and face dogged opposition in Alabama, Florida and even other parts of Georgia. Meanwhile, the district's conservation measures have been less aggressive than some had hoped (Exhibit 1: the ill-fated plumbing regulations for existing home sales.)

When the state Legislature convenes in January, the big water fight is expected to center on a proposed statewide water plan. Rural interests, particularly in South Georgia, where many view water supply as more of an Atlanta problem, are wary of the idea. But metro business leaders are pushing for a state plan. That was evident Monday when Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams reiterated the chamber's support and warned reporters that the "ongoing water crisis in metro Atlanta ... is the biggest and most imminent economic threat to our region."

Williams also joined with those calling for the Corps to release more water for Atlanta from lakes Lanier and Allatoona. And he made the same argument that many business and political leaders have been making for years: Over the long term, new reservoirs and transfers of water from other river basins into metro Atlanta will be needed to keep the growth engine going.

There was little talk, though, of actually changing the state's overall approach to growth and development – a conversation that Bethea complains political and business leaders have avoided for too long already.

"We're going to have to grow in a different way – we have to have cultural and lifestyle changes for this region to be sustainable in the future," she says. "It's the elephant-in-the-room subject. It's much easier to point fingers at the Corps – they're part of the problem, sure – but it's more than that. We've had several wake-up calls in the past, several droughts. But we always go back to sleep. This 2007 drought is telling us we can keep on wasting, or we can keep on growing, but we can't do both."

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