Southern States Fight for Water During Drought

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The South is experiencing one of the worst droughts on record. Lakes and rivers are lowering in water levels, translating into a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, Georgia, Alabama and Florida are fighting over water in the Chattahoochee River basin, which feeds all three states. Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting explains how residents are coping.


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: We ask two black farmers how they are getting by in a very difficult year.

But first, we've talked quite a bit in recent programs about the dry conditions and wildfires out West, but the South is enduring one of the worst droughts in recent memory. Reservoir and river levels are falling, and it's already meant a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to the states and their industries.

Georgia, Alabama and Florida in particular are fighting over water in the Chattahoochee River basin that feeds all three states. Susanna Capelouto has been tracking the drought and the fight over water. She's news director for Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Hello. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. SUSANNA CAPELOUTO (News Director, Georgia Public Broadcasting): Hello.

MARTIN: So start from the beginning. We've got Georgia, Alabama, Florida and the Army Corps of Engineers all involved. What does each state need? How - who decides how much water each gets now?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: The reservoirs on the Chattahoochee River are controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and they talk to all three states and they ask how much water do you need, et cetera.

The holdback is that in Florida, in the Apalachicola Bay, there is an endangered species, a couple. There's some mussels and there are some sturgeon. And for years, that has sort of controlled the flow of the river. There's a court order that says, you know, the endangered species needs to be protected, so they need a certain level of water in the Chattahoochee River.

And when we weren't in a drought, that was just fine, you know, send them some water for the mussels. Well now, Lake Lanier is the reservoir that's on the top of the Chattahoochee, and that reservoir is the drinking water for Atlanta. We've been in a drought for 18 months. It's really the worst drought on record. And Atlanta has grown in the last 10 years tremendously. The problem is that now the reservoirs are running low and people are saying, well, the mussels don't need the water anymore. But it's more than that. It's also the power plant that relies on this minimum flow in the Chattahoochee.

MARTIN: Which is a power plant in Alabama.

Ms. CAPELOUTO: And it's controlled through - yes, that's a nuclear power plant, Plant Farley. There's also a coal-fired power plant in Florida, and they also -they need the water for cooling. So if you reduce the flow in the Chattahoochee to keep the water for the people in Atlanta, what happens downstream is they have to shut down power.

MARTIN: So was there, in essence, a prenup deciding, you know, how much water everybody was supposed to get, and now they want to change it? Or was it that it was a fairly on an as-needed basis before, so there really wasn't any set ratio of water assigned to each party?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: Well, all the three states saw this coming because the region was growing. They had the Chattahoochee, and the Chattahoochee's not a big river. It's really the smallest river basin feeding so many people.

So they started 17 years ago, and they did a water pact, they called it. But that means they only agreed to agree at some point about sharing water. They still haven't agreed. They've been in court. It's what we called the tri-state water war. That's what it's about. And that's why they're going to be meeting all three governors with the president to see if they maybe can come to some interim agreement.

The Corps of Engineers basically is operating on an old plan, you know, with guidance from U.S. Fish and Wildlife on the endangered species.

MARTIN: So President Bush is going to meet with the three governors. Is he going to meet with all of them together?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: Apparently, that's what they're saying, yes.

MARTIN: But what do they want him to do? Is he supposed to - what? Tell them to get along? Or is he supposed to work out the agreement?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: I think so. I think so. Who knows? Maybe just to get them talking, to share water. This is the problem. The states are in fierce competition with attracting business. They want foreign investment. They want jobs. They go to these companies and say, oh, come to Georgia. We've got plenty water, plenty of power, build your plant right here. Alabama does the same thing. It's really an economic issue, a lot more than people drinking water.

MARTIN: What does that water shortage mean to the average person in Atlanta right now? Does the average person notice there's a water shortage? Are people allowed to water their lawns, for example?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: No, we have had a outdoor watering ban in place for several weeks now. That means no outdoor watering, so we rely on rain. Now, a lot of people, including our mayor, apparently, they have buckets in their bathrooms. And they kind of, you know, keep water from the bathroom or from the kitchen and use it on plants outside, because no outdoor watering.

I mean, people are just fierce about calling in their neighbors. They had this great story about the city of Alpharetta was watering. Their sprinklers went on. And a policeman came by and saw the sprinklers on, so he fined the city $500. Well, the city is the one collecting the fines. So the city says, well, we can't fine - we're not in the business of paying ourselves. So it's sort of interesting how people just are very fierce. When they see someone watering, they call.

MARTIN: A couple of years ago, we had a drought in this area, a suburb outside of Washington. And it got so bad that not only were they - they were bringing water trucks in, but also, you know, things like restaurants couldn't use their dishwashers. They had to use paper plates. And people found that just - they said, look. If I wanted to eat off paper, I could go at home.

Ms. CAPELOUTO: You know, we could get there.

MARTIN: I mean, is that going on there, too?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: Not quite yet. I mean, there are some restaurants where they don't just put the ice water on the table. They, you know, they only give you water when you ask. Things like that. They're asking people to conserve water, but, you know, there is still water left, and somehow people just think that, oh, it will rain. And, you know, politicians come out and say you should conserve water. Take shorter showers. The paper has a little thing that says these are 10 things you can do, only run your dishwasher when it's full. Those kinds of things are there.

MARTIN: Why is that? I mean why is that? Do you think the political leadership…

Ms. CAPELOUTO: I mean, they have asked — the governor has asked - yeah, well, the governor has asked that in 61 counties, that the municipalities cut their water by 10 percent. Now, the thing is, over last December, the thing is a lot of these places already are at 10 percent because outdoor watering has been banned.

MARTIN: Susanna, we're hearing conflicting reports about just how much water metro Atlanta has left. We're hearing two months worth of supply, three months, four months. What do you think is true?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: Well, it sort of changes with the rain. We just had a little bit of rain, like three days of good rain, so maybe that adds a few days - not. What happens is that the lake level is dropping, and it's getting closer to what's called the conservation pool. And that's basically the amount of water in the lake that the Corps of Engineers controls. That's where the pumps are, where they pump it out.

But beneath that, there is more water. There's like murkier water. There's 40 percent apparently more water in that lake, so you just have to take some pumps. It's going to be costly, but you just keep pumping water out of that lake, and it's just going to be a little murkier. It needs to be treated a little more. So some say, you know, there is more water. But it's really hard to tell, you know, by the day. Some say 120 days, 80 days. It goes up and down.

MARTIN: Is there a contingency plan in case - for metro Atlanta - in case things get really bad? And if so, what is it?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: Well, they always said there is a plan B, but no one will tell us exactly what plan B is.

MARTIN: What do you mean nobody will tell you what plan B is? Is it a secret?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: Because if they have a plan B in place, the pressure is off of the Corps of Engineers. You know, Atlanta is like, it's okay. We can keep releasing water because, you know, if they run out, Atlanta will do B.

MARTIN: Drink Coca-Cola?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: So this is why they just say there is no other way but for the Corps of Engineers to keep more water in Georgia.

MARTIN: Susanna, tell the truth. are you hoarding Coca-Cola in your basement, or bottled water? Dasani or something?

Ms. CAPELOUTO: I don't have a basement, but no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CAPELOUTO I'm actually doing - I have my son take his bath with peppermint soap, which is biodegradable, and then I take that water and put it on my plants.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Good plan.

Ms. CAPELOUTO: That's what I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CAPELOUTO: Everybody has some little thing.

MARTIN: Some little strategy.

MARTIN: Susanna Capelouto is news director for Georgia Public Broadcasting. She joined us from there.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. CAPELOUTO: Thank you.

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