Time To Take A Break
It’s been a long run, but it’s time we sat back and took a break. Few states have experienced quite as much booming prosperity as Georgia did during the 1990s, when development in the Metro Atlanta area exploded and the state’s population line almost went vertical on the demographers’ charts.
In less than two decades, the number of people living in Georgia has grown by about 50 percent, according to the official estimates of the Census Bureau. If there were some way to count accurately the number of undocumented immigrants who moved here to take jobs in the construction, carpet and food processing industries, that population growth would probably exceed 60 percent.
As a direct result of all those people moving here, Georgia was awarded two extra congressional seats after the 2000 census. We’ll add at least one more House seat after the 2010 census and possibly two.
One not-so-great byproduct of all that population growth has been the ravenous thirst of those new residents for the limited amount of water available in the basins that supply North Georgia. That growth trend finally caught up with us in October as a drought of historic proportions was drying up reservoirs all across the northern tier of counties.
When it became apparent we were running short of water, political and business leaders quickly settled upon a scapegoat on whom to place the blame: It was all the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers for releasing too much water from Lake Lanier.
Elected officials including Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and others all repeated the same talking point: The overheated development and resulting population growth in Metro Atlanta over the past two decades had absolutely nothing to do with the water crisis.
That is, of course, a complete denial of reality, as can be proved by anyone who does the math: Georgia has added about 3 million new residents since 1990. The average person uses 70 gallons of water per day. That’s more than 200 million gallons a day being siphoned off from existing water sources.
Unless you’re the kind of person who still thinks we faked the moon landing in 1969, you’d have to agree that the increased demand for water obviously had an impact on our available supplies, and a major one at that.
Droughts come and go, and at some point the current one will probably end as well. For the moment, however, it looks like we have temporarily reached the upper limit on the new development and population growth that can be supported by current water resources.
In light of that, I think now would be an ideal time for state and local governments to take a break from further development until we can figure out exactly how much water we have and how much more we can count on in the future.
Every city and county government north of the fall line should agree to stop issuing construction permits for the next six to 12 months. That would give the General Assembly time to review the statewide water management plan currently being finalized by Environmental Protection Director Carol Couch and vote on whether to accept it.
Legislators would also have time to ponder the hard decisions that need to be made for the state’s future wellbeing. What sorts of conservation measures should be written into law? Is it time to require builders to start retrofitting houses and commercial structures with water-saving plumbing fixtures? Should we build new reservoirs or try to squeeze more water out of existing ones? If we decide to build new reservoirs, how do we raise the money to pay for them? Should we start charging environmental impact fees on new development so that we can afford the infrastructure to support future population growth?
Those are all valid questions that should be carefully studied by our elected representatives before we start deciding what the answers are. They need some time to do that.
It became obvious in October that we’re running out of water for the people who live and work here already – it would be madness to add to that shortage at this particular time with more development. Let’s stop and take a break while we try to figure out what to do.