"Metro Atlanta is Not Running Out of Water"

By Harold Reheis, published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution June 10, 2002.

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A flurry of news reports and rumors in recent weeks regarding metropolitan Atlanta's water supply would lead one to believe that we are running out of water and that our future looks bleak, at best. The region's unprecedented population growth, combined with several years of drought, has raised legitimate questions about our water resources.

The answers will come from an informed public, water managers and public acceptance of a lifestyle based on effective water conservation.

On May 14, representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers presented information to representatives of Alabama, Florida and Georgia state governments, and some interested citizens, about water use in the Chattahoochee River Basin. The presentation was mostly about water use by metro Atlanta cities and counties. The Corps cautioned the audience that the information was preliminary, incomplete and might have errors (which it did).

Despite that caution, some observers at the meeting, including reporters, took a small portion of the information and declared that it means metro Atlanta is already using as much water as metro Atlanta is predicted to need in 2030.

Here is the rest of the story. First, it is important to understand a few terms:

"Withdrawals" are the amounts of water all users pump out of the Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier, and their tributaries upstream of Whitesburg in Carroll County. We chose Whitesburg because the U.S. Geological Survey operates a river flow measuring station at that location. The data collected at Whitesburg reflect total water withdrawals and water returns from above Lake Lanier down through the metro Atlanta area.

"Returns" are the amounts of highly treated wastewater that come back to the Chattahoochee, Lake Lanier and their tributaries. Withdrawals and returns are allowed under state permits issued and enforced by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

"Water consumption" is withdrawals minus returns. It is what we take out of the river and lake, but don't put back. Consumption occurs because people water their lawns and gardens, because about 25 percent of our homes are on septic tanks rather than city or county sewers, and because some water is transferred out of the Chattahoochee Basin. Most of the out-of-basin water transfers occur in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties because a large number of residents of those counties live in the South and Yellow River Basins. Their highly treated wastewater ends up in those basins, although it comes from the Chattahoochee Basin.

In August 1999, and in May and June 2000 (before the current outdoor water-use restrictions were put in place), water consumption in the Chattahoochee Basin upstream of Whitesburg slightly exceeded (by less than 4 percent each month) the amount of consumption predicted for those same months for 2030. That's the bad news.

Now the good news: The annual average water consumption in that stretch of the Chattahoochee River in 1999 was 175 million gallons per day (mgd), and in 2000 was 188 mgd. These numbers are well below the predictions Georgia EPD has made for 2030 water consumption. The 2030 water consumption predictions range from 254 to 373 mgd.

More good news: The annual average water withdrawals in that stretch of the Chattahoochee River in 1999 were 435 mgd and in 2000 were 442 mgd. These numbers are well below the annual average water withdrawal of 705 mgd that Georgia's negotiators have proposed in the interstate water allocation formula we are developing with Alabama and Florida.

More good news: The Chattahoochee River and Lake Lanier will safely yield 705 mgd in withdrawals in a bad drought. And this will be possible while still leaving adequate water in the river for other water users in Georgia, Alabama and Florida downstream of metro Atlanta, and while still keeping Lake Lanier at or above its historical water levels.

Georgia EPD predicts that an annual average of 705 mgd of water withdrawals will be needed in 2030 for metro Atlanta and the Lake Lanier area from the Chattahoochee. Since annual average withdrawals in the drought years of 1999 and 2000 were 435 mgd and 442 mgd, this region is hardly running out of water.

Our water must be used efficiently and managed wisely. If the metro Atlanta/Lake Lanier region grows faster than we have predicted, or is wasteful with water, the 705 mgd limit will be reached before 2030. If growth is slower and/or we become more conservative and efficient water users, the 705 mgd limit may not be reached until 2040 or beyond.

The drought that has gripped most of Georgia since the spring of 1998 is a wake-up call. We all must learn to conserve water, and early indications from the current outdoor water use restrictions prove it can be done.

Outdoor water use drives up summer water demand, which is typically about 23 percent higher than annual average demand. What Georgia EPD has seen in 2000 and 2001 is that even the modest outdoor water-use restrictions we have asked water utilities to implement are working.

The past two summers have been very hot and dry, and the region's population has been increasing. Both conditions would lead us to expect a trend toward higher water use. Yet we have seen the opposite. The major water systems in the region have shown real reductions in summertime water withdrawals of between 5 percent and 10 percent since 2000.

EPD expects this trend to become even more pronounced as better water conservation programs are incorporated into comprehensive water plans being developed by the state and by the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is mounting a new initiative to improve water conservation statewide, which includes the recent hiring of a state water conservation coordinator. The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District will aggressively promote water conservation among local governments and citizens in metro Atlanta and neighboring areas.

The current discussion of metro Atlanta's water supply is absolutely essential to the future of both the region and the state. It is a healthy discussion that we must collectively continue.

Metro Atlanta is not out of water, nor is the rest of Georgia, and with good planning and conservation we will never run out.
Harold Reheis is director of the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
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