In 2007 an unprecedented drought, lasting nearly three years, stretched across the southeastern United States forcing some of the region's largest cities to declare water emergencies. The situation became so serious that officials in Atlanta, where rainfall totals were more than 16 inches below normal, were worried they would run out of drinking-water.
David Stooksbury, a climatologist at Georgia State, classified the drought as “an exceptional drought... basically [it is] the type of drought that we expect to see about once in 100 years.”
When Lake Lanier reservoir, the main source of Atlanta’s water supply, shrank to historic lows in the midst of the drought, Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue called the drought “man-made,” and sought to halt or severely restrict water releases from Lake Lanier reservoir, directly threatening numerous aquatic species downstream, including endangered mussels and sturgeon. This crisis triggered litigation, and a water war, involving the states of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.
Congress authorized 3 dams to be built along the Flint River in 1970, but then-Governor, Jimmy Carter, rejected the project when environmentalists opposed it.
Today, Georgia Governor, Nathan Deal, is promoting reservoirs to deal with some of the pressure on Lake Lanier, making Flint River dam opponents very nervous.
"We would lose the last undammed river as it crosses the fall line in Georgia," said Flint river keeper Gordon Rogers. "You get a mix of animals and plants (along the river) that is absolutely unique in Georgia."
Some residents of the Thomaston community along the Flint believe a reservoir on the river would bring economic benefits to an area hit hard by mill closures.
"We overlooked what could happen in 1994 with the great flood. We overlooked the drought situation that occurred in our state a few short years ago. These cycles are going to recur," said Hays Arnold, Mayor of Thomaston.
In a nation where abundant, clear, and cheap drinking water has been taken for granted for generations, it is hard to imagine residents of a major city adjusting to life without it.
Providing water free of disease and toxins is becoming more difficult, as old methods prove inadequate and new hazards emerge. Shortages have become endemic to many regions, as record drought and population growth drain rivers and aquifers. It's easy to see why concern over clean drinking water might someday make the energy crisis seem minor.
In July 2009, a federal judge ruled that Atlanta, where water demand is projected to double over the next 30 years, must find another source of water, and made the following observation:
“Too often, state, local, and even national government actors do not consider the long-term consequences of their decisions. Local governments allow unchecked growth because it increases tax revenue, but these same governments do not sufficiently plan for the resources such unchecked growth will require. Nor do individual citizens consider frequently enough their consumption of our scarce resources, absent a crisis situation….”
Big business is seeking a leading role in US water delivery systems. Private industry promises new capital and greater efficiency, but can they deliver? In 1999, Atlanta became the largest US city to privatize its water system. Already the city is weighing whether to nullify its 20-year contract with United Water, a subsidiary of the French company Suez.
Researchers also question whether Americans are getting sick from their drinking water far more often than is recognized.
"Is this happening below the radar screen, with low-level [gastrointestinal] things, where people will stay home from work, or be miserable at work, and not ever go to the doctor?" asks Jack Colford of the University of California-Berkeley, who is leading an EPA-CDC-funded study comparing disease rates between participants who drink tap water through a sophisticated filter and those using a fake look-alike filter.
Harvard researchers reported that emergency-room visits for gastrointestinal illness rose after spikes in dirt levels that still remained well within federal standards. Pollution is shrinking water supplies for communities, and at the same time, growing population and weather are causing severe shortages.
The CIA predicts that by 2015, drinking-water access could be a major source of world conflict.