News - Drying out, slowing down

Water shortfall could be a chance to curb growth

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has thrown a bucket of cold water on metro Atlanta's political class with the news that we're rapidly approaching the limit of available water from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River — a mere 30 years ahead of schedule. Consequently, the Corps won't let us suck any more out of the lake than we're already taking.

Not surprisingly, pro-growth forces are in a froth, warning that if we don't do something to find more water somewhere, the consequences will be dire. I fully expect that we'll soon see any number of schemes for increasing water supply that will make the Northern Arc boondoggle look like child's play in terms of cost and environmental destruction.

But this is exactly the wrong way to look at the Corps' conclusion. Instead of seeing a limited water supply as a tragedy, we should embrace it as an opportunity. We now have a cudgel we can use to bring an end to the unsustainable orgy of growth we've experienced in the last 15 years.

Since the mid-1980s, we've gone from about 2.5 million people to more than 4 million. As a result, our air and streams are dirtier, and our roads are more crowded. The tree cover that makes Atlanta so special is disappearing at an alarming rate. And now we find our water supply stretched to the limit.

Metro Atlanta's cozy business-political axis has done everything it can to promote the idea that growth is good and even more growth is better. While this has pumped up the economy and made developers and land speculators rich, it's also caused a steady deterioration in our quality of life.

State and local politicians have chosen to ignore this. For them, growth is like crack. The ever-increasing tax base that it generates lets them do what they do best (spend our money) without drawing undue attention by raising taxes. They continue to build more roads, schools and infrastructure to attract more growth so they can build more roads, schools and infrastructure to attract more growth.

The political will to break this destructive cycle hasn't existed — at least until now. But a limited water supply may be exactly what we need to finally force state and local politicians to confront vital questions. Is it really in our best interests to continue to add people and sprawl to what's already here? Have we reached the point where the economic benefits of more growth aren't worth the trouble it causes?

No one would be foolish enough to OK developments that don't have access to water. Thus, we could use our scarce water supply as a tool to limit growth to supportable levels, which will give us breathing room to fix some of the problems we now face because of our addiction to growth.

Of course, I'm not naive enough to believe that our leaders will actually take advantage of this opportunity. We're already starting to hear the drumbeat of how, if we don't find some way to expand our water supply, we're all going to be in trouble the next time we have a drought.

We probably will get a rude surprise with the next dry spell — a direct consequence of our refusal to countenance rational growth policies.

It's also highly doubtful that we can develop new water supplies. Any attempt to take more from the Chattahoochee River basin will run into opposition from Alabama and Florida. People in northwest Georgia will raise hell if we try to take from Lake Allatoona, and people in south Georgia will get madder than that if we try to tap into their underground aquifers. Building new dams and reservoirs requires navigating a plethora of federal environmental regulations. Buying water in distant states and piping it here — as Los Angeles does — will be a horrendously expensive logistical nightmare.

Thus, we can curse the Corps and spend the next few years desperately seeking water, probably to very little avail. Or we can thank the Corps for finally giving us the blunt instrument we need to bring growth under control.

Richard Shumate is a Buckhead writer and Internet consultant who prefers a bucket of cold beer to a bucket of cold water.??

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