During a recent television interview, I was asked this question: “What do most Georgians worry about most today?” My answer — “Water” — surprised even me. Apart from worrying about war, Georgians are concerned about water.
If you look at newspapers throughout the state, almost every day there are local news stories concerning water. In Atlanta people are boiling their drinking water, because the infrastructure is so bad that sewage is backing up into the drinking water. In Southeast Georgia, newspapers such as The Statesboro Herald carry stories about saltwater coming into the aquifer systems because of the drought.
One of our Georgia Trend employees, Carolyn Gardiner, is so worried about water that she has a rain gauge in her back yard. “I measure it every day and compare my level with the TV weather reports. I believe we are going to run out,” she says.
Conventional wisdom says the Atlanta region is using up all of Georgia’s water. Yet the problem is far more complex. One example can be found in Carrollton and Carroll County. Carrollton is a wonderful small town that has been participating in Georgia’s incredible growth rate the past 10 years. According to the U.S. Census, Carroll is one of the fastest growing counties in the country.
Carrollton, located west of the river near the Alabama line, relies on surface water for drinking. The Chattahoochee River feeds the Atlanta water system, which leaves Atlanta and skirts Carroll; however, the river water is too polluted and overused to be of any help. Two tributaries of the Chattahoochee, the Snake and the Acorn, and a third river, the Little Tallapoosa, are valuable water sources for the city. But a reservoir on the Snake River is only a stopgap for the county’s growth problems. According to experts such as West Georgia professor Curtis Hollabaugh, the community needs other sources or the area will soon fall short in water supply. Thus, water is a major issue for Carroll County.
Now consider Southwest Georgia. The Flint is Southwest Georgia’s most important river. It starts near Atlanta and runs 349 miles into Georgia’s 18-county breadbasket region surrounding Albany. This area generates $2.1 billion in agriculture crops, a huge part of the state’s total production of $6.5 billion. And it takes water to produce those crops. Southwest Georgia represents just over a third of the harvested land in Georgia, yet according to EPA statistics, irrigation on those same farms amounts to 54 percent of the state’s total water usage.
“Agriculture is the single biggest user of water in Georgia,” says Harold Reheis, director of the Environmental Protection Division, the water quality and quantity watchdog for the state. Reheis says that in a drought year, agriculture will use more water than all the cities and counties and industrial plants in Georgia combined.
The EPD figures that Georgia’s industrial plants from all over the state use an estimated 1,020 million gallons of water per day. In Southwest Georgia alone, the state’s most important farm region, it is believed that irrigation will use more than 700 million gallons a day from surface and ground water in a normal year, over half the total amount used by Georgia’s entire industry sector.
Such issues contribute to the water war between Georgia and Florida. We have it, but they want to make sure we leave enough for their agriculture and for the shrimping industries along the Gulf coast. This is the water Florida is trying to bargain to keep, yet it is the state of Georgia’s water. The water war that has been raging in the courts among Georgia, Florida and Alabama will decide the future volume of water use in Atlanta, Northwest Georgia and the Flint River basin surrounding Albany.
The water issues must be resolved out of court to protect Georgia farmers and other water users. Growth in Georgia is outstripping our finite water supply. Construction is filling our streams and rivers with mud and dirt. Salt water is seeping into the ground water along the coast. Georgia is now in a fifth year of drought.
These and other water subjects were virtually ignored during the 2002 political season. Yet this issue will be a major concern of the new governor and the legislature in 2003, as our thirsty state worries about Georgia’s liquid assets and new ways to deal with the changes ahead.