Above the Waterline: Yes, we’re in a drought!

A buoy and several docks are left high and dry in Lake Allatoona during north Georgia’s exceptional drought in 2007. (Photo by John Bazemore)
A buoy and several docks are left high and dry in Lake Allatoona during north Georgia’s exceptional drought in 2007. (Photo by John Bazemore)

By Sally Bethea

It is 9 a.m. on an early fall morning and I have one hour to water the parched plants in my yard or I will violate the state’s outdoor watering restrictions. This long and brutally hot summer, Atlanta’s second-hottest ever, has been challenging, especially for us Southerners who love our gardens.

Since 2010, when a state water conservation law was passed – on the heels of an “exceptional” drought in north Georgia that dropped Lake Lanier nineteen feet below its normal pool – homeowners have been restricted to the hours of 4 p.m. to 10 a.m. for outdoor watering. In truth, this is a minor inconvenience considering the importance of having enough clean water for our daily lives, the economy and healthy rivers.

Floods and droughts – the extremes that bracket what we think of as “normal” weather – are often mentioned together in news stories about climate disruption. A large political difference between them is the speed of their arrival.

Floods are quickly observed. Droughts, on the other hand, are much more slowly perceived, arriving in people’s lives like chronic ailments: they are preceded by periods of uncertainty about (or unwillingness to acknowledge) their existence.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), which is charged with officially declaring a drought and thereby triggering water-reduction requirements, has developed a penchant for delaying this important action.

During the exceptional drought of 2006-2008, state officials failed to officially declare a drought early enough to prompt conservation measures that could have reduced impacts on waterways and communities. By the time that the state took action, it was too late to make much of a difference; people, businesses and rivers suffered.

This year, EPD did not declare a Level 1 Drought Response until September 9 – a full three months after the metro region reached “severe” drought conditions and two months after it moved into the drier “extreme” drought category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Level 1 requires water utilities to enact a public information campaign, a modest first step that raises awareness.

Given the state’s delayed response to the current drought, it appears that our officials did not learn any lessons from the last dry period. Or, perhaps, this silence has more to do with the ongoing “water wars” in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin and the big trial scheduled for late October.

Another explanation for the failure to act in a timely manner could be that metro growth boosters do not want any public acknowledgement that the region has water supply problems that have not yet been resolved.

While metro Atlanta has made real progress in conserving its limited supplies over the past decade, greater water efficiency can be achieved in every sector. Millions of gallons continue to be wasted daily through inefficient outdoor watering, supply system leaks, old plumbing fixtures and an increasingly paved-over landscape that keeps rainwater from soaking into the ground.

In the past twenty years, we have faced some level of drought 55 percent of the time – up from 45 percent in the past century. By all accounts, climate change will continue to bring droughts to our region every few years and some will be multi-year events.

Our state officials must embrace a precautionary approach to the drought-level determinations they make when severe droughts are documented by the federal agencies that manage the U.S. Drought Monitor.

This approach will help protect the public from exposure to harm when there is a plausible risk. That risk became evident in June this year and a drought should have been declared then.

Precaution is just a smart way to manage our precious water resources conservatively and keep our gardens green.

Bethea2Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper , a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.

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