Shorter Showers, Fewer Flowers

The woman walking through Atlanta’s Poncey-Highland neighborhood was carrying a flat of bright purple pansies in her outstretched arms, and I was envious.

I was in my car, on the way to spend a sedentary evening indoors. She was, presumably, on her way home, where she would be planting flowers to brighten her yard and her spirits.

I’m hardly a gardening fanatic, but planting pansies on my back patio is a favorite fall ritual, one I’ve missed this year. I imagined the pansy-bearer digging in the dirt and allowed myself to remember the rich, earthy smell of the soil and the gratifying jolt of instant color the flowers provide. And how pleasant it is to watch them stand at attention when they are doused with water.

Oops. Water. A sobering thought in the midst of the drought. Water would be a problem. I made a quick transformation from mellow flower-coveter to indignant good citizen.

Would this urban gardener be showering her plants with “gray” water salvaged from household use? Surely she wouldn’t dare to turn on a garden hose or fill a watering can from the kitchen tap? That would be a clear violation of the outdoor watering ban, unless she happened to have well water – which I doubted, given her location within the city limits of Atlanta.

And come to think of it, should she really be planting annuals at all, since they have such a short lifespan? Here we have scientists counting the number of days before Lake Lanier could run dry, and this woman wants to plant water-needy flowers. Pretty self-indulgent.

Of course, what I was really thinking, selfishly, was: If I’m not planting pansies this year, why is she? I’ll miss the spots of color I’m used to seeing from the kitchen window; but it’s hard to justify even “used” water for plants that benefit only me and don’t provide food or forestall serious soil erosion.

Frankly, all of us – private citizens and public officials alike – were a little late to the water conservation party.

It’s easy – and perhaps even justifiable – to point fingers and wonder what took us so long to understand we were in a crisis. Why were people still watering their lawns in August? Why were golf courses gulping water all summer long? Why did it take a public outcry to persuade the folks at Stone Mountain Park that using millions of gallons of water to make faux snow was a boneheaded idea?

The truth is we were all assuming – certainly hoping – that a big rain would come along one day, followed by lots more big rains; and the problem would be washed away for another 100 years.

Finally, though, everybody is paying attention, from the lowest level of private citizenry – those of us who are curtailing our gardening plans and taking shorter showers – to the highest level of elected officials. The state of Georgia is battling the Army Corps of Engineers over the amount of water released downstream from Lake Lanier to Alabama and Florida. Gov. Sonny Perdue, backed by the entire Georgia Delegation, has appealed to President Bush to declare 85 counties in Georgia a disaster area.

The result of all this newfound awareness is a swirl of conversation and activity. There are serious debates about the unprecedented growth that has driven Metro Atlanta’s economic boom as well as its water use, and more pedestrian discussions about flushing frequency. There are community meetings and public forums on conservation.

Public entities are charged with the task of reducing water consumption by 10 percent. The University of Georgia is looking for ways to reduce its water use by 25 percent.

Meanwhile, neighbors are watching each other’s lawns and reporting watering scofflaws to the authorities. There are lists of conservation and drought-survival tips practically everywhere you look.

It’s tempting to dismiss some of the advice as simplistic, irrelevant or, at best, stating the obvious – like a notice urging people to “scoop up after your pet” and “never throw anything on the street.”

But solving our water problem is going to require measures large and small – sweeping policy changes initiated by government leaders and modest individual efforts that will keep us focused.

We’ll all be looking for the little things we can do – whether it’s forswearing pansies or timing showers – as we wait for our leaders to take some big bold steps. And while we’re at it, maybe praying for rain isn’t a bad idea.

Categories: Business Casual