Water Worries

All across this sodden blue planet, especially in the United States, the most precious ingredient for life on Earth often is the least appreciated. Water, specifically freshwater, quenches our most essential needs. It maintains our ecosystems and our economies.

And yet we have shown a blissfully suicidal tendency to flush away this most valued resource at an extravagant rate.

The average American uses 150 gallons of water a day – in the kitchen, the laundry room and especially the bathroom; Georgia residents use about 10 percent more water per capita than the national average, according to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

“The truth is, we do have an abundance of water in this state. But we can make our abundant water source pretty scarce if we don’t learn how to use it wisely,” says EPD director Carol Couch.

“As our population continues to grow at a rapid rate, our water efficiency practices need to evolve from something we do only in response to droughts to something we do day in and day out.”

For the past few years, water efficiency and conservation have been foremost in the mind of Couch, who has been leading the effort to develop Georgia’s first statewide water management plan, due for legislative consideration in 2008.

Stakeholders already are questioning how and if the water plan will interact with the recently completed state energy plan. Entrepreneurs are betting that desalination – turning seawater into drinking water – will be quenching Georgia’s thirst in the near future, in spite of protests from some environmental advocacy groups, concerned that a commitment to desalination would discourage serious conservation measures and that local ecosystems in the path of the resultant brine discharges would be harmed.

“If proper water management is implemented – and that includes a variety of things, including conservation – we think there is no need for a new water supply source, especially one as energy intensive as desalination,” says David Kyler, executive director of the St. Simons-based Center for a Sustainable Coast.

But it’s too early to tell exactly how Georgia will be managing its bountiful yet finite source of freshwater in years to come.

“Desalination is an example of a tool that may not be part of the management plan in the near term, but this is a continuous process,” says Napoleon Caldwell, senior planning and policy advisor for the EPD. “The question we have to ask is, where might we be in 10, 15 or 20 years in terms of our water resources.”

Water is both ubiquitous and rare – living things are made up mostly of water (humans, tomatoes, chickens – predominantly water), and more than 70 percent of the world is covered in water, a total supply of some 326 million cubic miles. But 97.5 percent of that is salt water (oceans, seas, the occasional salt lake), leaving only 2.5 percent as freshwater.

About 70 percent of that freshwater is frozen in polar ice caps, and the rest is mostly in the soil or deep beneath the earth’s surface and inaccessible. Less than 1 percent of the planet’s freshwater, or 0.007 percent of all water on earth, is found in lakes, rivers and accessible groundwater, and therefore considered potable, i.e., fit for human consumption.

The good news: Water is our most renewable resource. The world’s water volume is constant. Thanks to the hydrologic cycle, there is as much water today as there was 3 billion years ago.

It’s a cycle without beginning or end – driven by the sun’s energy, water circulates from seas, lakes, streams and plants into the atmosphere then back to Earth as precipitation. It’s quite possible that the water you used to brush your teeth this morning once fell as rain on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The bad news is, what we have is what we have. And as the population continues to expand, our demand and consumption is outpacing our ability to recycle and reuse water.

“There will be 10 billion people on the planet in another 30 years. So how we use our available water supply, and figuring out how we can safely recycle and reuse water, will become increasingly critical,” says William Koros, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“The significant thing to remember is, there is no new water on the planet.”

There isn’t, but parched regions of the world have been wringing new sources of usable water from the plentiful – and drought resistant – supply of seawater through desalination for several decades.

Desalination is expensive and energy intensive (high energy consumption, which can take up to half of the desalination cost, is one reason many conservationists oppose the idea), but more than 15,000 desalination plants in 120 countries worldwide produce about 4 billion gallons of potable water every day.

Although used primarily in arid regions of the world (60 percent of the plants are located in the Middle East, where desalination accounts for more than 70 percent of the drinking water), desalination has a foothold in the United States, where more than 1,000 plants (mostly small, inland facilities) treat about 1 billion gallons daily of, primarily, brackish or dirty water from fossil aquifers or estuaries.

The largest seawater desalination plant in the nation opened in Tampa in 2003, but the $150 million facility has a troubled history – bankruptcy of the three companies involved in the project, a legal dispute over ownership and control, and technical problems that forced the plant to shut down for retrofitting. The plant is expected to be fully operational in 2008, years behind schedule.

But soon, desalination should be on display in Georgia. A Jonesboro firm, Aquasis, plans to complete a $1 million pilot plant near Georgia Power’s Plant McManus in Glynn County.

“We hope it’s the first step in the permitting process for a larger, fully operational plant that would serve coastal Georgia,” says Aquasis COO Aaron Crosby, who envisions a facility on the scale of the one in Tampa, which can produce 25 million gallons a day of drinking water.

“We can definitely do better, as a state, in conserving water, in educating the public on efficiency practices,” Crosby says. “But once you’ve done the best you can with conservation and efficiency, given the immense population growth we know is going to occur, you’ve got to look at additional water sources.”

Planning Upstream

Georgia’s population is expected to reach 14.4 million by 2030 – 9 million in Metro Atlanta, where current water usage (650 million gallons a day) will likely double in the next 23 years.

Right now, Atlanta gets most of its water from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River, with its headwaters bubbling out of an inconspicuous spring north of Helen, near the Appalachian Trail, a humble mountain trickle that slakes the thirst of one of the fastest growing regions in history.

Atlanta’s sprawl and ever increasing demand for water has been the driving force in the ongoing legal tussle among Alabama, Florida and Georgia over the use of water resources shared by the three states.

“All of the time and effort and energy we spent in the 1990s with Alabama and Florida made us understand that we need to consider comprehensive management of the water resources of this state,” says Caldwell, who was on the frontlines of the tri-state water war, managing Georgia’s water withdrawal permitting program.

“We had advisors early on in the process who said that our best chance in making a defensible and winnable case would be for us to a good job of managing our own resources,” he adds. “The fact is, regardless of political or geographic boundaries, when you start talking about water resources, you’re talking about opportunities and values.

“One of the things we came to realize is that protection and preservation of those opportunities and values through proactive water quality and quantity management is what is best for Georgia and, in all likelihood, what our neighboring states would wish to see.”

So in 2004, the legislature passed the Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Planning Act, which led to creation of the Georgia Water Council, a 14-person committee composed mainly of state agency officials and legislators.

Under the council’s supervision, the EPD is guiding development of the first statewide water management plan. A militia of stakeholders and experts was assembled into a statewide advisory committee, one of seven basin advisory committees and four different technical advisory committees. They have been meeting and offering input for over a year while the EPD has taken stock of public opinion through a series of town hall meetings across the state.

“One thing we’ve tried to make clear is that every Georgian is a stakeholder in this,” says Couch, who also chairs the Georgia Water Council.

EPD will provide a plan draft in July to the water council, a 14-person committee composed mainly of state agency officials and legislators. After the council reviews, modifies (if it deems necessary) and approves the draft, a proposed plan will be recommended for consideration by the 2008 General Assembly.

“It’s been a very inclusive process, a real comprehensive approach to public participation,” says Shana Udvardy, a member of the water conservation technical advisory committee and a water policy analyst for the Georgia Conservancy and Georgia Water Coalition (a network of 140-plus individuals and organizations, including the Georgia Conservancy, a founding partner).

State Sen. Ross Tolleson, a Republican from Perry who serves on the Water Council, says he’s dedicating the summer and fall to the task of preparing the final draft.

“I don’t want there to be a question in anybody’s mind about what they’re voting on,” says Tolleson, who expects water conservation will be a prominent part of the plan. “We have a fairly ample supply of water in this state, but Mother Nature didn’t lay it all out evenly.”

Complex Toolbox

Every day, more than 4 trillion gallons of precipitation falls on the United States, and the nation extracts some 450 billion gallons of water from ground and surface sources. Georgia, which gets 50 to 60 inches a year of rainfall on average, gets plenty – from 14 different river basins, the Floridan aquifer and groundwater deposits across the state.

In Georgia, agriculture soaks up nearly 1.6 billion gallons per day, more than 57 percent of all the water consumed in the state. The next biggest users are industry (643 million gallons, 23.4 percent) and municipalities (528 million gallons, 19.2 percent).

“We’re in a water rich state most of the year,” the Georgia Conservancy’s Udvardy says. “When there is a drought, and we’re challenged to meet water demands for human uses and the ecosystem, we start taking conservation measures. I think we can do a better job all of the time, especially in the Metro Atlanta area, with conservation measures.”

Since its creation in 2001, the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District has implemented a number of conservation requirements that have yet to be embraced by many local jurisdictions. Successful programs, such as the water conservation rate structure (in which the user pays more as volume increases) in Cobb and Douglas counties and the city of Griffin, have been atypical in a metropolitan region that welcomes 100,000 new people every year.

In lieu of meaningful conservation, Metro Atlanta has used interbasin transfers – when water is removed from one river basin and released into a different basin – to meet its water needs. Millions of gallons a day are diverted from the Etowah and Coosa rivers into the Chattahoochee basin.

Two priority objectives in the state water plan involve minimization of water withdrawals through conservation and management of interbasin transfers.

“The topic of interbasin transfers is highly emotional. It’s one of the things that has been in the forefront in our town hall meetings, in the last few legislative sessions,” Couch says.

“We should start with a policy that states, ‘Don’t ask for water from another basin until you can demonstrate that you have conserved and made a high degree of efficiency in the water that’s available to you naturally.’”

Ideally, the plan and the planning process itself are like water: fluid, a perpetual cycle, a constant learning experience and changing experiment – basic tenets of natural resource “adaptive management.”

“That’s important because our knowledge and information about our water resources change with time,” Couch says. “So we will have to revisit the plan periodically and make it adaptive to the changing knowledge, facts and information.”

That includes integration of the state’s energy and water plans in some fashion, although the fact that one was driven statutorily (water) and the other by executive order (energy) complicates the issue.

“You have two different starting points,” says Couch, who also served on the Governor’s Energy Policy Council.

But, she adds, with the Georgia Environmental Facilities Agency (GEFA, the state office that guided the energy plan) as part of the water management planning process, “we have a way of tying the two policy directions together.”

Salty Aftertaste

Atlanta is expected to keep drawing residents like tacks to a magnet, and at this rate the metro area will reach the limits of its water supply by 2030.

“The Chattahoochee basin, the Etowah River, they’ll meet our needs until then, so we’ve got to look seriously at conservation and alternative water supplies if we want to sustain the kind of growth we’ve been experiencing,” says Charles “Chick” Krautler, director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

“Desalination could be a viable alternative in the future. But it’s kind of like solar energy, or running cars on hydrogen – we can do all of those things today. But at what point does it become economically feasible?”

A few years ago Atlanta water officials suggested the state explore building three desalination plants on the Georgia coast, for the purpose of pumping water to the metro region. The city was going to conduct a feasibility study with matching funds from the state – but the money was put on hold and so was the study.

Last year the state legislature formed a committee to study desalination and not long after, Krautler and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin offered an idea: Coastal cities, like Savannah, could build desalination plants to lessen their dependence on freshwater from the Savannah River, thereby allowing that unused river water to be piped to Atlanta.

“It’s a question that we probably need to explore in the next couple of years, once we figure out where the technology is,” Krautler says.

The technology, so far, works (the Tampa project notwithstanding) and is getting better. Georgia Tech professor William Koros says the reverse osmosis process (which dominates the modern desalination industry) has become more efficient and less costly thanks to breakthroughs in membrane technology.

“We’d like to have it up and running this year,” says Aaron Crosby, who is confident that his partnership with engineering firm CH2M Hill and GE Infrastructure – both veterans in desalination projects worldwide – will help Aquasis avoid the Tampa experience.

“Desalination is still unproven in Georgia,” Crosby says. “So we’ll try to prove that it can work in a way that is both economical and environmentally sensitive.”

Still, environmental groups like the Georgia Conservancy and the Center for a Sustainable Coast continue to worry that large-scale desalination projects would discourage conservation and efficiency measures and that the resultant salt discharges could damage local ecosystems as well as the local economies that depend on those ecosystems for tourist dollars.

Crosby says the pilot study will take all of that into account, and he points to California and New England as places moving toward large-scale desalination.

For Couch, like Krautler, the technology sounds good, but the timing is still questionable. It’s a bottom-line thing. Producing 1,000 gallons of desalinated water costs about $3, compared to $1.25 for surface water and 50 cents for groundwater.

“There will be a day and a time, I believe, when desalination is used in Georgia,” Couch says. “Whole countries are almost completely reliant on desalination – of course, we’re talking about countries that do not have the wet climate we have in Georgia.

“But the question isn’t, is the technology ready. The question is, is the market ready.”

Categories: Environment, Features