Drought pushes states to find new fixes


A dispute over a precious water supply forced three Southern governors Thursday (Nov. 1) to turn to Washington, D.C., to seek a truce - offering a vivid example of how states are grappling this year with a drought that has touched nearly every state in the country.

Discussing the issue as a group for the first time, Republican Govs. Bob Riley of Alabama, Charlie Crist of Florida and Sonny Perdue of Georgia met with U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and other Bush administration officials to work toward a compromise over the diminishing water supply.

Drought conditions have become especially dire in the South, where the three states are struggling to balance competing interests that rely on water from Lake Lanier in Georgia. The reservoir provides water for the nearly 3 million people in metropolitan Atlanta, allows a nuclear power plant in Alabama to operate and provides a home for wildlife in Florida.

"We have reached a point today where we have to make some decisions," Riley said. "If we go through another year like we did this year, then we cannot continue to operate under the same system that we've operated under for the last 40 or 50 years."

Kempthorne said of the governors: "They're looking out for the interests of their respective states, but they're doing it while also recognizing they're good neighbors."

Specifically, the group agreed to reduce by 16 percent the water sent to Florida from the lake, which will provide Atlanta with more drinking water. It also agreed to come up with an addendum to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operating manual that will allow easier management of water during droughts, and to agree on a solution by mid-February.

"Since water is the essence of life, we simply have to plan for these contingencies and, unfortunately, we find ourselves challenged to the point now where we're going to have to make some tough decisions," Perdue said.

The states are among the hardest hit in a dry spell that is parching much of the Southeast and West, according to Richard Heim, a meteorologist in the climate monitoring branch of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). "It's rather bad," he said, "especially for some parts of the country."

At the end of September, 28 percent of the contiguous United States was characterized as in severe to extreme drought - a condition marked by high fire risk, crop failure and depleted water supplies - and 43 percent was characterized as moderate to extreme. Parts of nearly every state were in drought, and the tinder-dry conditions set the stage for wildfires such as those that recently raged through Southern California, he said.

According to a Nov. 1 National Weather Service update, rainfall in late October has lessened the severity of the drought in parts of Alabama, Southern California and North Carolina, but the situation remains as dire as ever in Georgia and much of Alabama, as well as in large chunks of California and Nevada.

States are responding to these parched conditions in many ways.

  • In Georgia, Perdue banned outdoor watering in the northern part of the state, told public water utilities in the northern part of the state to cut their water withdrawals by 10 percent, and required state agencies to cut usage.
  • In Idaho, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) announced a plan to replace eight miles of open canal from the Black Canyon Dam with water-conserving pipeline.
  • North Carolina's Gov. Mike Easley (D) asked residents to cut water consumption by 50 percent for nine days starting Oct. 22, to create a baseline for water use.
  • In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) unveiled a $9 billion water infrastructure proposal in September that includes increased surface and groundwater storage systems, funds for conservation efforts and restoration of watersheds.

Many states have issued water restrictions, and local municipalities are taking action in many cases, often because the state requires it. In Long Beach, Calif., restaurants can serve water only on request, and residents must cut back on lawn-watering, for example.

Scott Jones, 52, has lived in Atlanta since he was 2, and he's never experienced a drought as bad as the one gripping his city now. He's doing what he can to conserve water day-to-day, little things such as turning off the bathroom water when brushing his teeth.

But as a founder of Site Solutions, a 7-year-old landscape architecture firm based in the city, Jones also is looking ahead to the inevitable next drought. About two weeks ago, the company, which mainly works on large-scale projects for shopping centers and office parks, adopted a new policy: From now on, it will design landscapes with less water-guzzling turf and more plants that survive in dry conditions.

"We've been thinking about it for a while," said Jones. Even if the rains come and the drought ends tomorrow, he'll continue the program because droughts inevitably come back, he said. "Even if it takes five years, it doesn't matter."

If states adopt that sort of think-ahead approach, future drought damage could be minimized, said Cody Knutson, a water resources scientist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, a nonprofit organization at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 1980, only New York, South Dakota and Colorado had drought plans, he said. Now, 37 states - including Georgia - have such a plan.

According to Heim, droughts are a recurring phenomenon caused by many factors, including wind patterns, global warming and ocean temperatures. Records dating back hundreds of years (based on tree rings) show that dry periods are inevitable, he said. In Tennessee, the current year is the third-driest since 1550, he said.

Knutson works to help states prepare for drought long before the water levels in reservoirs begin to drop. An ideal plan, he said, includes a committee that looks for the first signs of drought and creation of checklists of potential actions, based on the sectors of the economy most vulnerable to drought. Short-term actions might include water conservation and education, while longer-term - and more expensive - options might be to create new reservoirs or rural irrigation systems, he said.

"The worst time to plan is in times of crisis," he said. "States really need to embrace long-term planning." 


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