Water woes loom over Georgia

Unlike an energy crisis where we can turn down the air conditioning and run our cars on alternative fuels, a water crisis could threaten our drinking water supplies and Georgia's economic future.

We have no substitute for water. Without it we cannot survive. So we must plan today to manage this precious and limited resource in times of scarcity and plenty.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division confirmed the state is in a drought; lake and stream levels are low, causing serious concerns about whether metro Atlanta residents will have enough drinking water this summer. However, the good news is the state is working aggressively to develop a comprehensive water management plan.

For those of us who lived in Georgia during the 1998-2002 drought, we remember a time when farmers irrigated their crops until the Flint River flowed dangerously low, resulting in a moratorium on new wells in the basin.

The city of Griffin faced a drinking water crisis so serious I was jokingly asked to use the restroom before I came into town for an Experiment Station meeting. Outdoor water restrictions and bans were the norm, and boats ran aground on the shores of Lake Lanier.

An elaborate planning process is under way to determine just how much water Georgians will need today and into the future and still maintain the biological integrity of streams and rivers. More than 200 people from across the state representing a variety of interests sit on the Water Council, Statewide Advisory Committee, Technical Advisory Committees and Basin Advisory Committees. They provide their expertise and perspective on water quality and water quantity issues. Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, is leading this Herculean effort.

I serve on the Basin Advisory Committee for the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Altamaha river basins where I live and work. These basins stretch from metro Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean giving me the opportunity to interact with people representing an array of urban and rural interests that include local government officials, riverkeepers, farmers, public works and power company managers, and industry leaders.

Those of us who serve on the Basin Advisory Committee take our task seriously.

For this reason, I travel two hours south from metro Atlanta - headwaters of the Ocumulgee River - while Deborah Shephard rides four hours north from the coast - mouth of the Altamaha River - to attend our meetings in Macon.

Attendance is high, with only one absent at our first meeting among the 31 people selected, and ideas gush forth like an open fire hose as facilitators furiously record them on easel pads.

Offer a tax credit to retrofit plumbing in older homes with water saving devices, suggested one person; provide local governments with technical assistance to implement regulations, said a mayor; collect rainwater to irrigate outdoor landscaping, I added; educate schoolchildren about water conservation so they can teach their parents, recommended the University of Georgia River Basin Center program coordinator; and the Altamaha Riverkeeper asked us to consider the compost toilet as a water conservation method.

A farmer requested continued support for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences so scientists can provide him and others with the latest water saving technology to irrigate their crops.

At meetings, we often debate the science or lack of it on various topics. Are septic systems (on site) and land application of wastewater (LAS) consumptive uses of water or not? UGA scientists reported that if properly located and maintained, "the data suggest that 70 percent or more of wastewater applied through on-site systems and LAS should return to the stream."

There is consensus among this diverse group that given the competing demands on water, we must find equitable ways to conserve and allocate it.

The process is inclusive and transparent. As Gail Cowie, policy adviser to the EPD director, said, "We are all in this together." All Georgians have a responsibility to get involved. The draft document of our work is posted for comment on the Web at www.georgiawatercouncil.org. In addition, town hall meetings will be held in Marietta, Macon, Tifton and Savannah on July 10-13 to hear residents concerns and comments. Times and meeting locations are listed on the same Web site.

Please add your voice to this important discussion so the final document represents our best effort to provide future Georgians with a quality of life that relies on adequate water supplies.

Susan M. Varlamoff is program coordinator at the Office of Environmental Sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia.