Drought May Keep Georgia Pools Shut for Summer

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The Alpharetta Family YMCA is one of the YMCA's newest outdoor pools in the Atlanta area. The area Y pools are used for swim leagues, water aerobics, summer school groups and swimming classes. Courtesy YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta
Lake Lanier, North of Atlanta i

The boat ramp at Six Mile Creek north of Atlanta shows the strikingly low water level at Lake Lanier, Atlanta's largest source of drinking water. The lake is 19 feet below what is considered "full pool." The state climatologist says there's no relief in sight. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR
Lake Lanier, North of Atlanta

The boat ramp at Six Mile Creek north of Atlanta shows the strikingly low water level at Lake Lanier, Atlanta's largest source of drinking water. The lake is 19 feet below what is considered "full pool." The state climatologist says there's no relief in sight.

Kathy Lohr, NPR

The idea of summer without swimming pools has ignited a firestorm in Georgia. The long-term effects of an almost two-year drought have called into question whether thousands of outdoor pools in 61 north Georgia counties will be allowed to open.

State officials first limited and then banned outdoor watering altogether last year. Since the drought hasn't improved, many Georgians have just realized that adding water to maintain pools is already part of that ban.

There are thousands of outdoor pools in Georgia: community pools, hotel pools, private pools and pools at the YMCA. Under the state's drought rules, indoor pools would remain open.

But closing outdoor pools raises safety concerns, says Kristin Obaranek of the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, which runs about a dozen outdoor pools.

"There are a lot of things that people probably haven't considered yet," she says — including what will happen with pools that are open and left unattended.

Pools can't just be drained, because that could cause structural problems. They also have to be maintained, or the chlorinated water would turn into a swampy mess full of possible health threats.

What's more, Obaranek says, "It's a shame to think that kids might not have [pools to go to] this summer."

Concerned Pool Companies

Pool companies are anxious, as well.

Craig Sears, a pool company owner, manages 175 neighborhood pools. He says few paid attention to state drought restrictions at first, but lake levels have continued to drop. Now he and others are creating a strategy and a voice for the pool industry, which represents a $150 million economic engine in Georgia.

Sears says pools don't use as much water as people might think.

"The average pool loses approximately an eighth of an inch of water due to evaporation. You have a body of water and a system that is over 99 percent efficient from a day-to-day basis," Sears says.

Some Georgia communities are digging wells, which are exempt from the water restrictions. Others are considering trucking in enough water to keep pools open. That's an expensive proposition, and Sears says it's just not feasible.

"There aren't enough trucks out there, there aren't enough drivers out there to get water to all the pools if everybody wanted to go with that option," he says. "So that's a logistics nightmare right there."

Sears says operators are recommending a cautious approach that would allow them to open up their pools while keeping an eye on things — such as the drought outlook in the state.

Georgia officials have not yet made a decision about whether pools will be exempt from drought restrictions. In the past, they have exempted some businesses that use water, including car washes, construction sites and even a local water park.

Looking Ahead

Dr. Carol Crouch with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division says she is looking at how to handle the issue of swimming pools and the drought.

"We know very well that when you think about public welfare, that includes recreation, something for kids to do during the summer," Couch says.

She acknowledges that West Nile virus could be an issue if Georgians are not allowed to maintain their pools.

It's now clear that many industries and groups depend on pools being open, including those who maintain pools, chemical suppliers, repair companies, swim teams and even those who sell uniforms.

"It's not going to be good for metro Atlanta if we can't come to some kind of resolution on this and get them open even for a short period of time," says Kristin McEwen of the YMCA of Metro Atlanta.

The debate has gotten more political as legislators introduced bills that would keep pools open this summer, saying there's no evidence that closing them would noticeably impact the drought.

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