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Story last updated at 12:09 a.m. on Monday, July 3, 2000 'Water doomsday' near at hand, ecologist warns
By Lee Shearer Staff Writer
University of Georgia ecologist Eugene Odum predicts that the water crisis in Georgia and around the world will become more severe. Jeff Blake/ Photo staff This summer's water use restrictions are not some temporary ordeal that will pass sooner or later -- it's a taste of a rapidly approaching future of limited water resources, according to University of Georgia ecologist Eugene Odum.
''The day of free water is coming to an end. The shortage of fresh water is already a global problem, and we have to get used to the fact that water is a scarce commodity,'' said Odum, recognized as one of the primary shapers of scientific thought in ecology. Odum is one of an increasing number of scientists and economists who propose a market-based solution to the looming water crisis. ''We're going to have to pay more, sooner or later,'' Odum said. This summer's drought will pass eventually, but Northeast Georgia's water shortages are only going to get worse, he said. Droughts, a natural part of cyclical weather patterns, will come again, but they will grow steadily worse because more and more people are depending on the same water supply, according to Odum.
The problem is not very hard to understand, Odum explained. Nature isn't making any new water, hasn't for millions of years. The Earth's existing water just gets cycled around through evaporation and rain. But there are a lot more people depending on the limited supply of water. Nowhere is that truer than in Georgia, where the population has doubled in the past 40 years from about 4 million to 8 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Already involved in a ''water war'' with two other states, Georgia could soon face even more struggles over water, mainly because of Atlanta's uncontrolled growth, Odum said.
In a recent interview, Odum displayed a graph produced by an ecology class he taught at UGA in 1978. The graph plots out an Atlanta ''water doomsday.'' It shows two lines, far apart at first, then intersecting in the year 2010, when Atlanta's water use would exceed the minimum flow in the Chattahoochee River that supplies most of the area's water. There was just one thing wrong with the prediction, Odum said. Because Atlanta has been growing much faster than anyone foresaw over the past two decades, the city's water use has grown much faster than projected -- which means Atlanta's ''water doomsday'' is already at hand, he said. Metropolitan Atlanta's water use, less than 200 million gallons a day in 1978 when Odum's class charted the future, is now about 400 million gallons a day and still rising, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Odum's 1978 projection estimated that Atlanta's water would be a bit less than 250 million gallons a day in 2000. With such skyrocketing use, Odum predicted the state could be fighting water wars on several fronts before long.
Negotiations have dragged on fruitlessly for years between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over the rights to water in the Chattahoochee and rivers that join it farther downstream. The governments should just admit that water demands are greater than the supply, and that the only long-term solution is to reduce water demands, he said. Instead, Atlanta's insatiable thirst may lead to conflicts with South Carolina, and even with other cities in Georgia, Odum said. The in-state conflicts are likely to arise between Atlanta and such cities as Gainesville, which depend on the same water supplies that feed Atlanta, he said. Conflict with South Carolina could come if the state takes action on proposals to divert water for Atlanta from tributaries of the Savannah River, which forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina.
The Athens area also faces its own set of water problems, Odum pointed out. Like Atlanta, Athens is in the relatively water-poor piedmont area, and a growing population is using more and more water from area rivers and wells. ''I guess people don't realize there's not very much water in the piedmont,'' Odum said. In the coastal plain of South and Middle Georgia, the Floridan and other huge aquifers store vast quantities of water, but underground water in Northeast Georgia is trifling by comparison, which means Athens, Atlanta and most other cities must depend on water from rivers and man-made reservoirs, he said. A storage reservoir set to be completed next year on Bear Creek in Jackson County will give Athens some relief in future droughts, but it will only offer limited help. ''Reservoirs don't create water,'' Odum said. Some counties surrounding Athens, such as Oconee, could soon face a different set of problems, he noted. Many housing subdivisions in fast-growing Oconee County depend on privately owned wells for their water, but as more and more people tap into the same limited water resource, the risk of dry wells during drought is growing for everyone, Odum said. ''People have to understand that these are the facts of life,'' he said. Odum proposes a remedy for water woes that's not as simple as it sounds -- we should treat water as if it were a valuable commodity. ''We have to get water into the market economy,'' he said. That would mean increasing the cost of water, according to Odum. There are many technologies and techniques available to use water more efficiently -- drip irrigation for farmers, low-flow shower heads and toilets for homes, for example.
But there's no economic incentive for water conservation, Odum pointed out. Water costs nothing if you drill a well, and even if you get it from a municipal system such as the one Athens, the cost is very low, he explained. But if a family's water bill was $100 instead of $20 or $30, there would be a financial incentive to use less, Odum said. But water and market economics don't mix so easily. While it's fairly simple to put a value on something like electricity, which is produced by a private company such as Georgia Power, water is produced not by a corporation but by nature. ''How do we pay nature? How do we expand economics so we pay for nature's goods and services?'' Odum asked.
Though we can't ''pay'' nature, he feels there's no other way to ensure future economic prosperity other than setting a value on things produced by nature -- such as water. Higher education reporter Lee Shearer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (706) 208-2236.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), July 04, 2000