Water and Atlanta

By REBECCA WODDER
American Rivers

Atlanta prides itself on being a world-class city, but in the midst of all the 21st-century progress that surrounds us, we're burdened by a 19th-century approach to water.

Millions of people are expected to flock to this part of the country in the coming years. They're going to need water, we all do. Where will it come from? For years, we've been expecting miracles from the Chattahoochee River. That can't continue. Praying for rain or waiting on a miracle is not a solution. We need a better, more dependable answer to our water problems.

That solution is available right now. It's cost-efficient, and it lies right inside our homes and businesses: Waste less water. Cities around the nation have learned this is a cheap, dependable way to make sure they have enough water for years to come.

According to the American Water Works Association, making our homes water-smart with efficient fixtures and appliances can decrease water use by 35 percent. Planting less turf and more drought-resistant plants and installing efficient landscape irrigation systems can save huge amounts of water. Concrete does not need to be watered; never has, never will. The same indoor and outdoor water gains can be made in commercial buildings and corporate campuses.

We all know to look for the EnergyStar logo when buying appliances, yet few people know about the new WaterSense program. It's the same concept just for water, and products are already available on retailers' shelves. We should follow the lead of other cities, giving large rebates and free products to home and building owners. We all save money; it's a win-win.

The water these appliances save isn't just a drop in the bucket. Back in the '90s, New York City sewage treatment plants were overburdened. Instead of building new ones, the city installed more than a million low-flow toilets. Water consumption dropped 26 percent, making the new projects unnecessary. The decision saved taxpayers billions.

But, instead of pushing for common-sense solutions, Georgia lawmakers are focusing on emergency rationing, or releasing less water from Lake Lanier. Choking off local economies and the people working in them is never the answer. Real people are depending on those downstream flows.

There's even talk about transferring water from other Georgia rivers, or piping it up from desalination plants on the coast. Both ideas border on insanity. The first option simply steals water from other people, and the second is wildly expensive. To top it off, treating and pumping water long distances requires huge amounts of energy - resulting in more carbon emissions that warm the atmosphere and add to the likelihood of future droughts.

Which bring us to the elephant in the room: global warming. Like it or not, it's here, and it's real. The climate is changing, and we can expect to be hit with both more powerful rainstorms and more severe droughts in the future.

So, in light of that, we must take a look at how other cities are handling their water woes, and learn from them. Seattle's population has grown 15 percent since 1990, but water usage is down almost 30 percent. Why? Because conservation is king in King County, Wash. The city has adopted a graduated billing system for their water and invested in extensive public and business outreach campaigns. Those who use more water than the average person pay a premium for that extra water, and they feel sheepish doing it. This is not just crunchy granola thinking. Adequate supplies of clean, fresh water are serious business in Seattle, home of Microsoft and other high-tech giants.

Meanwhile, Chicago, along with other cities along the Great Lakes, has committed to reducing total water consumption by 15 percent by 2015, though the metro area's population is slated to grow by 20 percent. The Windy City is doing this despite the fact that it draws from a resource that holds one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water, the Great Lakes.

In Atlanta, the average Fulton County resident uses 50 percent more water a day than the average Seattle resident. Why is that?

Many of the water-saving ideas used by Seattle, New York and Chicago were included in the Metropolitan North Georgia Water District's conservation plan five years ago; many have been abandoned or not enforced. Why is that? Call your civic leaders and ask them.

It's time for Atlanta to step up and take our place among leading cities. Our leaders can do better. They have to.