You could say our canoe is up the creek without a paddle -- but that would imply the problem is a deficit in propulsion devices. The real problem is that our canoe is hard aground on caked mud that once was a deep river, and the price to refill the waterway is so astronomical that any way you look at it, we're screwed.
That could pose a big problem for, say, Gov. Sonny Perdue. After all, his, um, bold initiative for the state earlier this year was to promote "Go Fish" bass tournaments. But unless the finned critters can breathe sludge, the guv better look for other sports to promote. Maybe drag racing on desert flats – because much of Georgia is likely to resemble the Gobi or Sahara in a few years.
OK, that's a bit of rhetorical excess – but things are grim in Georgia, especially in Atlanta, when it comes to water.
Here's the nut of the problem: The certified bozos in charge of this state envision doubling the population to about 18 million people during the next 30 years. That will make a lot of developers stupendously wealthy. Utility companies and sprawl-friendly politicians will pocket a lot of cash, too. But someone has to pay for the cost of growth. If you're wondering which sucker the developers expect to pick up their tab, look in the mirror.
The devastating financial damage from growth is popping up on all fronts. Take roads, which are expensive infrastructure to maintain and which only exacerbate the problems they're supposed to relieve. If you build more, you then have to build even more to solve the problems created by the first wave of building. That defines lunacy. About 95 percent of the state's annual $2.6 billion transportation budget goes to fixing roads, and making interest payments, with only a few remaining pennies (many of which build four lanes to nowhere in South Georgia's empty counties) being available for new projects. Estimates by the Atlanta Regional Commission are that metro Atlanta needs a 25-year fix costing $67 billion, and the state faces urgent transportation shortfalls totaling $200 billion. And none of that ocean of greenbacks will begin to build Atlanta's real need – a vastly expanded public transit system.
But all of that transportation is just -- so to speak -- a drop in the bucket when compared to water. Carol Couch, head of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, told state leaders last month that the cost of building new water infrastructure will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. That's 11 zeros following a number, the type of sum usually reserved for the national debt or the cost of a war. Heck, just to get a solid scientific grasp on the scale of the looming water disaster, Couch needs $30 million.
What will Perdue & Co. do in the face of such a crisis? "Political will, or the lack of it, is the most troubling thing," says Tom Gehl, a policy expert at the Georgia Municipal Association. "It will be hard enough to pry that $30 million out of the hands of the governor and the General Assembly. But when you're talking about the bigger numbers, I just don't know."
Keep in mind that this is an election year. While you'll frequently be assaulted by legislators such as House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-I'mSoCraven, touting absolutely loopy schemes to cut taxes for plutocrats and corporations, it's considered politically unwise to be a good steward of this state and face up to the costly reality of salvaging its resources.
Deepening the problem, the water debate is as dense as Georgia's red clay. The EPD website contains lots of information, but it's the sort that common folks will have a hard time translating into simple English.
Occasionally, those who pay attention come up with gems of clarity. For example, the Macon Telegraph recently summed up the whole mess in 13 words: "Many fear Atlanta's uncontrolled thirst, whetted by sprawl, will leave downstream communities dry." And the EPD's Couch also sliced through the gobbledygook when she commented: "We're building roads where we can't get water to."
There you have it. Whatever else you may hear when Perdue and the Legislature's potentates blabber about water, you won't witness a confession that the real issue is insanely out-of-control growth. No way, no sir, that would be bad for bidness.
Still, savvy spectators will detect hints in the debate. For example, some of the bureaucratic chatter involves "transferring water." What does that mean? Translated from Sprawlese, the problem is that Atlanta relies on two rather small water basins – and the major one, Lake Lanier, is near a low-water crisis from the drought. The Chattahoochee, for example, will be exhausted when consumption reaches 700 million gallons per day, or mgd. We're currently using more than 450 mgd, and adding almost 35,000 gallons each and every day to what's sucked out of the river. By 2030, we'll have that caked mud ex-river mentioned above. Even radical conservation, which is direly needed, will keep the faucets dripping only a little longer.
So, the "growth industry" has a solution: Steal everyone else's water. Of course, the rest of Georgia got wise to the impending theft, and they're fighting it. The resulting discordant clamor, however, will likely add to the paralysis among legislators.
Not only is the rest of Georgia on the growth industry's hit list, but even other states. One plan would run pipelines from the Tennessee River to the Atlanta metropolis. That should amuse the Volunteer State, which has no good reason to volunteer its water for the benefit of gluttons here.
Then it gets really nutty. There's discussion of building desalinization plants on the Georgia coast and piping the water to Atlanta. Desal' is awesomely expensive – several multiples of current water prices. It burns a nonrenewable resource, oil, to create a renewable resource, water. It works in Saudi Arabia, where oil is cheaper than water. Desal' doesn't work, at least economically speaking, almost anywhere else.
"They're only looking at expensive engineering schemes," says Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. "It galls us that that's the type of solution political leaders are proposing. But that's what the growth industry is pushing on us."
Is there a real solution to our water woes? Um, no. Not unless Georgia dramatically curbs growth. And that gets about the same reception at the Gold Dome as any other sensible solution to state problems: none at all.
The Georgia Water Council is information central for the proposed state water plan and can be found at http://www.georgiawatercouncil.org/.
The download link for the plan can be found at http://www.Georgiawatercouncil.Org/files_pdf/plan_entire.Pdf.