What happens if the water tap goes dry?

Should the last drops of water trickle from the gates of Buford Dam at Lake Lanier, the metropolitan area would be in an unprecedented pinch.

And, as Gov. Sonny Perdue recently said, there is no contingency plan for 4 million-plus people running out of water. "I think he put it well," says Maj. Daren Payne of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees Buford Dam. "In the event that was to happen, you've got two solutions. Move people to water or move water to people. What we're doing now with conservation measures – this is the contingency plan."

Currently, the state has no concrete plan in place to deal with what happens if the lake level continues to trickle down, especially if, as expected, the dry weather continues through the winter.

The state Environmental Protection Division – operating in conjunction with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, the Georgia Division of Public Health and the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority – is monitoring critical reservoirs on the orders of Perdue.

But according to Jim Ussery, assistant director of the EPD, the group is largely viewing things on a day-to-day basis. His agency has been in contact with other cities who have faced droughts to gleam any knowledge they can to help confront the region's shortage.

"A drought isn't like a tornado or a hurricane, where you can go out and see and touch the impact," says Buzz Weiss, public information officer for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. "A drought is more subtle. We'll be watching closely what areas may need water the most. Are we at a point where we need to go out and distribute water? No, and we hope not to get to that point. Right now we're supporting the conservation measures."

What happens if the conservation measures don't work? What happens if the tap goes dry? Nobody knows.

"I can't even fathom if water stopped coming out of the taps," says Alan Toney, chairman of the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District. "Prior to that we'd probably have more restrictions or some sort of three-day rationing program – your water only gets turned on every three days or something like that. As far as sustaining human health we could probably go for a while. But the economy and image of Atlanta could be severely damaged by this."

Janet Ward, spokesperson for the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, says the agency is not "really looking" at a worst-case scenario. The agency shares the hopes that conservation, and rain, will assuage the situation. "But I can tell you that if we didn't have water, there's every reason to believe you would see a second burning of Atlanta," she says.

If the worst fears of the drought were realized, Atlanta would be looking at a wide-range aid program encompassing businesses, residents and public services.

The last time GEMA responded to an event where the water ran out was in 1994 after Tropical Storm Alberto. For 18 days, Macon residents were entirely without water after its water plant was flooded under more than a dozen feet of water. GEMA, using the Macon Coliseum as a distribution hub, drove out tankers for people to fill buckets and jugs.

Weiss stresses that the agency, for practical reasons, neither stockpiles supplies nor maintains a fleet of emergency vehicles. Its emphasis is on coordination. Should Atlanta run out of water, GEMA would contact different agencies, such as DOT or the National Guard to bring in water tanks as a temporary measure. And the EPD is looking into drilling emergency wells, and contacting water suppliers in case of crisis.

Dr. Betsy Kagey, chief epidemiologist of the Georgia Division of Public Health, says her agency is primarily focused on how vulnerable populations – people such as the elderly, dialysis patients, pregnant women, or those with immune deficiencies – need to be safeguarded during an extended drought.

Kevin Bloye, spokesman for the Georgia Hospital Association, says the organization is hosting weekly conference calls with its emergency preparedness contacts at hospitals and conducting preliminary research with medical centers around the country that have operated during water shortages.

Some water experts see the current drought as a clarion call for a comprehensive water policy the state has avoided putting into place for years.

Aris Georgakakos, director of Georgia Tech's Georgia Water Resources Institute, said the decision by the Corps last week to release less water from Lake Lanier should mean the state is in good shape until at least the summer. "But these things come in cycles, so this could be a wake-up call," he says. "We need to be prepared for the next one. We shouldn't be surprised the second time it comes around."

Toney says the drought is an opportunity to rethink water consumption and Atlanta's dubious honor of being one of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation relying on the smallest watershed. "We're way uphill, and yeah, the water tends to be cleaner, but it also tends to be scarce," he says. "And all these folks at the state and city level have just given the problem lip service. This is probably a healthy thing that's happening."

Lip service that many who watched the recent D.C. sit-down with the governors of Florida, Alabama and Georgia – rivals in the almost 20-year-old Water War – think is just too little, too late. Critics have derided the Metropolitan North Georgia Water District's 2003 plan as laxly enforced.

"The state needs to impose water conservation measures and needs – more than anything – to get an assessment of what they've got," says Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "They simply don't know."

For now, the only plans being proposed are the construction of more water reservoirs. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson each said last month they plan to introduce legislation pushing for more reservoirs when the next General Assembly convenes. If passed, the reservoirs could take years to build, and then it's up to nature to fill them up. Reservoirs would also continue to fuel continued growth in the region – an Atlanta constant that shows no signs of changing, according to recent statements made by Perdue and Mayor Shirley Franklin.

"The idea of 'taps running dry' is a total buy-in to the Cagle and Perdue spin-o-rama, just so they can build more reservoirs so they can have more growth to build more McMansions," Herring says. "They want to tear down Georgia cotton to build houses on the Piedmont plateau. It's ridiculous."