An exposed lake bed is shown near Aqualand Marina on Georgia's Lake Lanier in 2007.
An exposed lake bed is shown near Aqualand Marina on Georgia's Lake Lanier in 2007. John Bazemore/AP
Back in 2007, it was so dry in parts of the Southeast that the governor of Georgia held a prayer service for a storm.
"We've come together very simply for one reason and one reason only — to very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm," Gov. Sonny Perdue said at a prayer service at the state Capitol. Hundreds gathered on the steps of the Capitol at a time when Georgia was facing one of the worst droughts on record.
But that has turned around dramatically, and Georgia is now getting so much rain, it caused severe flooding last fall. Even with all the rain, the area is preparing for the next dry spell.
When Georgia's governor was praying for rain, Lake Lanier, which supplies the majority of Atlanta's water, was down nearly 20 feet, the lowest level recorded since the lake was built in the 1950s.
At Six Mile Creek Bridge in 2007, the boat ramp was shut down, and the sandy lake bottom was exposed.
"At this particular spot, we were basically looking at a lot of dry land instead of a lot of water," says Wilton Rooks of the Lake Lanier Association.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
After dipping 20 feet in 2007, Lake Lanier's water level is nearly full now, at more than 1,070 feet.
After dipping 20 feet in 2007, Lake Lanier's water level is nearly full now, at more than 1,070 feet. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Today, the lake is full to the brim, but Rooks is still concerned about what will happen during the next dry spell. His group is lobbying for raising the lake level 2 feet above what is now considered full pool to provide extra storage.
"That really generates a 26-billion-gallon additional storage in the same reservoir. It's enormous," Rooks says.
Other reservoirs have been proposed, but they require federal and state permits, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build.
Rooks says the drought did create a new group of stakeholders from Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico that now meet and talk about water policy. He says it's time everyone upstream and downstream finally listens to one another.
"We have oysterman in Apalachicola [in Florida] talking to the city of Atlanta water commissioner. I mean, this is unprecedented, and it's encouraging that it has not fallen apart," Rooks says.
Planning For Drought
Three southern states have a huge stake in the issue. Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been in a 20-year lawsuit over water. Georgia has claimed it has the right to water that falls in its lakes, but Alabama and Florida accuse Georgia of taking too much for development and for drinking water. Last year, a federal judge ruled that Atlanta does not have the right to take drinking water out of Lake Lanier, and gave the states until 2012 to reach an agreement. To show his good intentions, this year Perdue pressed for and got a water conservation bill.
Wilton Rooks of the Lake Lanier Association says the group is asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise the lake level 2 feet to increase the amount of water stored in the reservoir.
Wilton Rooks of the Lake Lanier Association says the group is asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise the lake level 2 feet to increase the amount of water stored in the reservoir. Kathy Lohr/NPR
"I think you'll see water on the agenda of states, not just Georgia but the states across these United States for the foreseeable future," Perdue says. "We're all — having gone through a transformation over the last 20 years to thinking water was infinite and that we'd never run out ... understanding the criticality of how important it is to preserve."
Georgia is updating its drought plan based in part on the most recent dry spell. There's also a pilot project, set up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to create an early warning system for future droughts in the Southeast. One of the biggest challenges is changing behavior.
"That 'wait and see' approach really delays any immediate response that might be taken to deal with declining water resources. And so if you put a plan in place, it will keep you from having a kind of last-minute response that is very reactive and probably not very effective," says Michael Hayes of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska.
Georgia's exponential growth also played a part in the drought. It was not the worst on record, but it affected millions more than in past years. That's because the state's population has doubled since the 1960s, so the water is shared among a lot more users.
"We can't go on the assumption, 'Well, I can do it, but the community next to me can't,' " says Georgia State Climatologist David Stooksbury. "There has to be some way to figure out how to do this so that the whole region gains. If everybody's only looking after their own good, then in the end, we all lose. "
The goal is creating that realization when the region is not in a crisis.