Eintime Conversion for education and research 04-08-2008 @ 12:48:34
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Thirsting for answers in dry Georgia

By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY

ATLANTA — Georgia had experienced dry spells before, but a drought that gripped this state from 1998-2002 seemed to sound the clarion call.

The Legislature, worried that fast-growing Atlanta was consuming water at the expense of the rest of the state, created a regional authority to chart a plan to manage the resource.

When a relentless drought hit last year, however, the agency's water-saving recommendations mostly had not been implemented.

Drought had ravaged San Diego, too, but its legacy was far different.

A six-year drought that ended in 1992 prompted conservation measures and other steps that enabled the metropolitan area to add a half-million people without substantially increasing water usage.

The sharply contrasting ways that normally rainy metropolitan Atlanta and semi-arid San Diego County have dealt with growth and water consumption are an instructive tale that might offer clues to Georgia legislators as they try again in January to divvy up the region's precarious water supply.

A key difference in the two approaches is the conservation ethic. San Diego, which averages about 10 inches of rain a year in a region where water conservation is part of the fabric of life, has one. Atlanta, which averages nearly 50 inches annually — but not for the past two years — does not.

San Diego long has been on the cutting edge of conservation. The city Water Department, for example, this month moved forward on a pilot project in which treated sewage would be purified and used to boost water supplies.

That kind of innovative action has not been seen in north Georgia, where the main water source, Lake Lanier, now looks more like a lunar landscape than a sparkling reservoir where water-skiers once pooled and the region is on track for its driest season on record. Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Tuesday that 61 drought-stricken counties have cut usage by 15%.

Strong, consistent leadership is necessary to create a conservation ethic, and that's been missing here, says environmentalist Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a group that seeks to protect Atlanta's prime watershed. "There's been a lot of nice talk, education programs and studies on water conservation," she says. "But I have not seen leaders providing real incentives and regulatory programs that would yield measurable reductions in our use of water."

Brig. Gen. Joseph Schroedel, regional head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Southeast, says Atlanta should learn from San Diego about how to grow without greatly increasing water usage. "They came up with conservation measures that allowed them to add 500,000 people, and they're consuming no more water than they did 500,000 people ago," he says.

Wake-up call for San Diego

The 1986-92 drought in Southern California was a seminal moment for the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA). The agency then was importing 95% of its water from the giant water district to the north that serves Los Angeles, says Assistant General Manager Dennis Cushman. It cut that amount to 73% and implemented pioneering water-saving efforts, including a measure for toilets that later became the national standard, Cushman says.

San Diego required that toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush, down from as much as 7 gallons. The county offered incentives of $75-$100 per toilet to retrofit older homes and required property owners to make the changes before they could sell their homes. More than 600,000 toilets have been retrofitted, saving millions of gallons of water, Cushman says.

Other steps San Diego has taken: The water authority gave away 500,000 low-flow shower heads. It's offering $175 vouchers toward the purchase of high-efficiency washing machines, which use 65% less water and 55% less energy than standard top-loading machines. The Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College teaches residents landscaping techniques that use less water. Yet San Diego, where 2007 rainfall is almost 60% below normal, still faces potential water shortages next year.

Dilemma for Atlanta

State Sen. Seth Harp, like millions of other Georgians who rely on the same relatively small river system as Atlanta, worries that the metro area's growth will retard that of communities downstream on the Chattahoochee River.

"Unless (Atlanta's growth) is severely limited and regulated, those of us who are downstream are going to be high and dry, and are rapidly becoming high and dry," says Harp, a Republican from Columbus, 110 miles to the south.

Harp sponsored a bill that would have required owners of pre-1993 homes to retrofit with water-saving plumbing fixtures. The bill, which he says would have saved millions of gallons of water a day, died two years ago in the Legislature. He says the real estate industry lobbied heavily against the bill.

The Legislature in 2001 created an agency to form a water management plan for 16 counties in metro Atlanta.

That body, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, predicted it could cut water usage 11% by 2030, spokeswoman Grace Trimble says, primarily by retrofitting toilets; conservation pricing, in which customers pay higher rates for greater water use; and fixing leaky pipes in distribution systems.

The district is making progress: 98% of its residents are served by utilities that have conservation pricing and 94% by utilities that have leak-detection programs, Trimble says.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has launched a $4 billion overhaul of the city's leaky sewer and water pipes.

Across the metro area, an estimated 18% of water is still lost to leaks, says Jill Johnson of Georgia Conservation Voters. Reducing that to 10% would save up to 50 million gallons of water a day, she predicts.

There's a reason Atlantans didn't conserve in the past, Harp says.

"Usually about the time everybody is screaming bloody murder, there will come a huge rain," he says. "Ironically, the worst thing that can happen now is to get a heavy rain."

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