By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007
BUFORD, Ga., Oct. 26 -- No gauges are necessary at Lake Lanier to measure the ravages of the Southeast's drought.
Wooden fishing docks tower 10 feet over dried mud that used to be squishy lake bottom. Boat ramps begin at the parking lot and end in sand. New islands emerge from shallows.
"If the water drops another foot, I don't know that anyone will be able to get a boat in," said Mike Boyle, 64, a resident who has long trolled the lake for spotted and striped bass.
The waters of Lake Lanier, funneled through federal dams along the Chattahoochee River, sustain about 2.8 million people in the Atlanta metropolitan area, a nuclear power plant that lights up much of Alabama, and the marine life in Florida's Apalachicola River and Bay.
Now, amid one of the worst droughts on record, all three places feel uncomfortably close to running dry. That has prompted a three-state fight that has simmered for years to erupt into testy exchanges over which one has the right to the lake's dwindling water supply and which one is or is not doing its share to conserve it.
The dispute, which some experts say provides a glimpse of what uncontrolled growth could mean for the future, has reached all the way to the White House as the Republican governors of Alabama, Georgia and Florida have appealed to President Bush for larger shares of the flow.
After a month of blustery news conferences and jabbing news releases from the competing governors, Bush dispatched Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne today to mediate an agreement.
"This was a real priority with President Bush," Kempthorne said, noting that the trip means he will be dealing with the California wildfires from the road. "If it were easy, this would have been settled 18 years ago."
The focal point of the interstate debate is Lake Lanier, a reservoir that was created in the late 1950s with the construction of the Buford Dam, which blocked the flow of the Chattahoochee River.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam, manages the flow of water through the structure to generate electricity and to accommodate downstream users, mainly utilities, industrial plants and the fisheries of the Apalachicola River and Bay.
Every morning, sirens wail just downriver from the dam. Then 52 stainless steel gates spin open, and, in a bubbling gush, the precious waters of the lake flow out into the Chattahoochee.
Amid the drought, the Corps has released more water from Lake Lanier than has flowed in, and Atlantans have grown increasingly worried about Lanier's dwindling levels. They are down about 15 feet from normal.
Some local utilities have direct intake lines in the lake. Others have intake lines in the river just below it. Both types of links rely on the lake water. And while the Army Corps of Engineers has sought to assure local users that there is no imminent danger of the lake going dry -- saying that 280 days' worth of water remains even without a drop of rain -- it is clear that its shrinkage is already having serious effects on at least some utilities.
The city of Cumming, whose intakes in the lake provide water to about 200,000 people, has had to install emergency pumps because of the receding level. One of its intakes got so close to the lake's surface that the water above it began to swirl, just as it does over a bathtub drain, and the intake began to suck air.
"A catastrophe on the level of Katrina seems to be looming at this point," said John Heard, utilities director for Cumming. "The forecast is not favorable."
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) has charged that, by releasing so much water, the Corps has created "a man-made disaster."
The "nonsensical action to further release vital water from Georgia's already depleted federal reservoirs must not stand," Perdue said last week. "There is simply no scientific justification to operate these reservoirs in this manner during a historic drought."
Downriver, naturally, no one finds the flow of water "nonsensical."
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) has noted that the Farley Nuclear Power Plant, which provides power for much of his state, depends on certain river water levels for its cooling system. Other industrial plants rely on the Chattahoochee flow, as well.
"More than 800,000 households in the region -- in Alabama, Georgia and Florida -- rely on the Farley Nuclear Plant for their electricity," Riley said Thursday. "Any attempt by Georgia to reduce the flow would be damaging to these families."
Riley also chided Georgia for its lack of conservation efforts as the drought developed this summer. For example, he noted that the state did not impose a ban on outdoor watering until the end of summer.
"Atlanta can't spend all summer during a drought watering their lawns and flowers and then expect someone else to bail them out," Riley said.
Once the water gets to Florida, it flows into the Apalachicola River and then to the bay.
In court papers, Florida's principal leverage in forcing a larger flow has been the fact that three federally protected species -- two types of mussel and the Gulf sturgeon -- are believed to need fresh water to maintain their habitat.
The demands of the little-known species has led Georgia officials to characterize the debate as a contest of "man versus mussel" -- suggesting that Georgians should get the water before mussels do.
But biologists said the demand for water in Apalachicola Bay is far broader than that.
The region's prized oyster harvest depends upon the freshwater infusion. Too much salinity allows oyster predators to attack. Moreover, the drought along the Apalachicola River has hurt the tupelo trees, from which the region's tupelo honey is named.
"This is not just people versus mussels," said Ted Hoehn, a state biologist who has worked around the bay for 20 years. "It's much bigger than that."
"Blaming the mussel is like blaming the canary in the coal mine for dying," said Andrew Smith, executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an advocacy group.
Smith and others have been warning for years that the Atlanta region's rapid and unrestricted growth would put tremendous pressure on the region's resources and that a collapse of those resources is a natural disaster waiting to happen.
"This whole situation has been like Katrina in slow motion," said David Goldberg, a "smart growth" advocate and Atlanta-based writer on urban affairs. "It's the same confluence of factors. There's Mother Nature, the Army Corps of Engineers and the utter failure to plan for the growth of metro Atlanta."