The Heat Is Online

Atlanta Faces Severe Water Shortage

As Atlanta Grows, Water Evaporates in Wilting Drought

The New York Times, June 15, 2000

ATLANTA, June 14 -- Just after dawn they emerge onto their pillowy meadows of fescue and bluegrass, some with hoses and some with mighty irrigation systems, each squeezing out every last legal drop of water before the 10 a.m. cutoff arrives with its water police, tattling neighbors and dark civic guilt.

On every block in the region the desperation of these homeowners is almost palpable, as they will their lawns to soak it up and beat the drought that is parching Georgia and most of the Gulf Coast. But the most thoughtful of them admit that it is hopeless and that Atlanta, with its famous forested canopy and brilliant shrubs, has finally gardened itself into a corner.

"Hey, I admit it, I'm addicted to water," said Caroline Gordon, a suburban Alpharetta resident who was pushing a shopping cart laden with peonies and impatiens at a branch of Pike's, a large local nursery chain. "Chances are, every one of these plants is going to die once they cut the water off. But I just don't want to live in a big brown field. That's not what I moved here for."

There have been droughts before in Georgia, mostly affecting the peanut and cotton farmers in the southern part of the state. Those farmers are struggling dreadfully again this summer. But something different is happening this year: a combination of uncontrollable forces that has state officials darkly warning about major changes on the horizon in lifestyle and economy.

For one thing, the drought is worse this year than in most past summers; some parts of Georgia have received less rain in the last 25 months than at any time in recorded weather history. Dr. David E. Stooksbury, the state climatologist, says the regional climate is changing in a profound way, moving from many years of stability with predictable rainfall to a far more variable climate that will veer between years of plenty and years of scarcity.

The Gulf Coast of Florida is experiencing the driest spring in a century, and the federal government's National Drought Monitor lists the crescent from Tampa to New Orleans as experiencing extreme drought. There has been a similar lack of rain in West Texas and northwest Missouri, and drought conditions exist in many other parts of the West and Midwest as well.

But the situation in Atlanta is an example of what can happen when growth and a shortage of rainfall collide. At the same time the natural spigot has been closed here, the Atlanta region has continued to grow without respite, adding nearly 100,000 people a year who fully intend to take showers, drink iced tea and swim. Most of the growth is in suburban areas, where the lawns are bigger, greener and thirstier, when they are not interrupted by backyard pools. And native and newcomer alike expect their lives to be air-conditioned, which in the summer requires huge releases from reservoirs to generate hydroelectric power.

The unstoppable flow of new customers would have taxed municipal water systems even without the drought, but with it the situation has become dire. The streams that fill the region's man-made reservoirs are flowing at less than half their usual rate, and the lakes would have dipped to dangerous levels if the Army Corps of Engineers had not agreed to cut back on power generation. But with the advent of summer, the electricity will have to be produced, the demand for water will increase and the lakes are expected to reach record lows. That makes water managers very nervous.

"Very soon, we're going to have to start drawing down those lakes," said Nowlton Johnson, the water resources chief at the state Environmental Protection Division. "But there's a limit to how much we can deplete our entire water storage. Something has to give."

That something is outdoor use. Water consumption nearly doubles here during the summer, and most of that increase feeds the sod, trees and gardens that have become the region's pride and bane. Last week, the state banned all outdoor watering for the 15-county Atlanta region from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. On Monday the state tightened the restrictions to limit outdoor watering to every other day. Violators face fines and the ultimate threat of a water shut-off; neighbors are being encouraged to report water criminals. But most officials expect a round-the-clock ban if these brilliant cloudless days continue, and then the great botanical brownout will begin.

"Please don't let it happen," said Walt Chastain, production director at the Gibbs Landscape Company, one of the region's many high-end lawn designers. "Most of our clients have invested well over $50,000 in their landscaping. You know what happens if they ban all watering? They're toast, man. Toast."

The loss of a lushly terraced oasis may seem a small price to pay in the face of a regional emergency, particularly considering what farmers farther south are experiencing. Tommy Irvin, who has been state agriculture commissioner since 1969, said this year's drought appears to be the worst in his tenure.

"Farmers had to start irrigating earlier this year than I've ever seen them do," said Mr. Irvin, whose office has been besieged with pleas for assistance. "The water tables are going down, and the ponds aren't filling. We had farmers planting peanuts in dry dust just to meet the federal government's June 1 deadline. And you know they're just not going to germinate."

But the potential water cutoff is no less threatening to those who work in metropolitan Atlanta's billion-dollar green industry. The Metropolitan Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association counts 530 landscape, maintenance and nursery companies in its membership, and Jean Ray, the group's executive director, estimated that the jobs of more than 3,000 people -- many of them Hispanic immigrants -- would be at risk if outdoor watering was cut off.

"The farmers tell me their cattle are eating brown grass, so why can't we play golf on brown grass?" Ms. Ray said. "And that sounds reasonable, until you think about the economic impact on our industry. It would be huge, a lot of layoffs."

The current restrictions are the most serious since the drought of 1986, when 26 cities and counties imposed total watering bans, lawns went brown, trees toppled and landscapers went hungry. But the region has grown by more than a million people in those 14 years, and this year's drought appears to be worse than that in 1986.The state has never imposed a total watering ban but is seriously considering doing so in the northern region if it does not rain soon.

At the rate the region is growing, demand for water will increase by 50 percent by 2020, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, a planning body, which predicts that the demand will never be met without a 10 percent cutback in water use by customers. State officials and horticulturalists are warning homeowners that they will have to begin mastering the principles of xeriscaping -- a kind of low-water landscaping -- if they want to preserve enough water for outdoor growth.

"People don't realize their lawns can look just as nice at one-third the size," said Walter Reeves, a University of Georgia horticulturalist whose television and radio gardening programs are immensely popular here. "They can have islands of flowers instead of a whole row, and there are many species of plants that require less water than the ones people use now."