When the rivers run dry

Forget about the mussels and sturgeon. Atlanta's water woes have politicians dreaming of an Endangered Suburbs Act


Andrew Leonard
November 2, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

"Our sacrifice was just a drop in the bucket," Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue said on Thursday. He was referring to mandatory water conservation measures aimed at coping with the worst drought to hit the Southeast in memory. The occasion was a press conference held to announce an Army Corps of Engineers proposal to allow greater amounts of water to be pumped out of Georgia's Lake Lanier than currently permitted.

His meaning was clear: Conservation can't slake Atlanta's desperate thirst. Only more water can. It's a position that has politicians in Florida and Alabama highly agitated, as they depend on steady flows of Georgia water for the needs of their own constituencies.

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The drought is yet another example of the kind of extreme weather event that can't be tied directly to human-induced climate change, but all the same packs a huge metaphorical whomp. Atlanta's suburban sprawl has generated traffic congestion and smog that rivals Los Angeles; it is a case study on how not to intelligently manage growth. This drought may or may not be a harbinger of what's to come in the future for the American Southeast, but as a warning of what can happen when humans don't prepare for the worst, it is an instructive example of how resource scarcity will screw with business-as-usual.

The Army Corps' General Robert Van Antwerp announced that by midnight Thursday he will have forwarded to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service a formal recommendation to reduce the current minimum flow of water that must be maintained in two critical river systems from 5000 cubic feet per second to 4200 cfs. The Fish and Wildlife Service will then make an expedited analysis of the likely biological impact of the proposed change. Will there be enough water for endangered mussels?

Sonny Perdue would love it if the question of how much Atlanta can pump was framed purely as drinking water for kids versus saving shellfish. In the long run, if humans don't drastically change their ways, the animal kingdom is always going to lose that showdown. The mussels just don't have the votes. But Perdue's formulation is disingenuous.

As two Republican Senators from Alabama said in a letter sent to President George Bush on Wednesday, "If you were to grant this request [from Georgia], you would not be 'siding with people' instead of mussels and sturgeons... You would be valuing the well-being of the people in Georgia over the citizens of Alabama and Florida."

That's a no-win situation. Someone, or something, whether it's a sturgeon fisherman or a nuclear power plant that needs cooling or a gated community outside of Atlanta with thirsty landscaping, is going to have to sacrifice. If, 30 years ago, Atlanta city planners had taken a hard look at the likely future consequences of unrestrained growth, maybe the sacrifices would be smaller. But they blew it.

So what's it going to be for the rest of us, as we face our uncertain climate change future? Make some relatively small sacrifices now, or be stuck with the big ones later?

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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