MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Unlike the weather in Malibu, it's finally raining today in parts of the Southeast. But the moisture won't go far to alleviate water shortages there. For the first time in more than 100 years, much of the region is experiencing the most severe category of drought, and that has taken a particular toll on Georgia.
(Soundbite of news montage)
Unidentified Woman #1: The little bit of rain we had this morning soaked into the dry ground so fast it really didn't do any good. Shutting off people's water…
Unidentified Woman #2: … in the state of crisis, facing the worst drought in state history.
Unidentified Man: Tonight, the state held a public hearing about a new water plant. Could it help us avoid…
NORRIS: Governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency for most of Georgia over the weekend. Much of the controversy centers on how much water to release from federally run reservoirs like Lake Sidney Lanier in north Georgia. That lake provides much of the water for booming Atlanta. But Lake Lanier's levels have dropped several feet. As a result, Atlanta now has less than a 90-day supply of water. Still, the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the manmade lake, continues to divert water from Lake Lanier to help sustain freshwater mussels and gulf sturgeon in other states downstream.
Governor Perdue says that needs to change, and went to Lake Lanier to appeal to President Bush.
Governor SONNY PERDUE (Republican, Georgia): We need the president to cut through the tangle of unnecessary bureaucracy to manage our resources prudently.
NORRIS: We'll hear more from Governor Perdue in a few minutes.
First, to Jackie Joseph. She's president of the Lake Lanier Association. That's a group that works to protect the lake's water quality. I asked her to describe the view from her home at the south end of the lake.
Ms. JACKIE JOSEPH (President, Lake Lanier Association): What I see today is, of course, a lot of shoreline. I would say, if you were to go from where typically the full pool would be and to measure the soil going out, probably about 60 feet before you would ever actually get to water level.
NORRIS: So the shoreline has receded by 50 or 60 feet?
Ms. JOSEPH: Well, actually, in certain areas, of course, more than that depending on the steepness. But, of course, this was all fairly steep topography to begin with. It just depends on the area you're looking at.
NORRIS: That must be difficult for you to look out at what, I guess, for years, has been a beautiful view and watch the lake recede like that.
Ms. JOSEPH: Oh, absolutely. It's devastating. It really is. Docks could be -private docks could be basically grounded.
NORRIS: So you've got boating docks that are left high and dry along the lake.
Ms. JOSEPH: Oh, yes. I'd say, probably, from what I was able to view, at least 60 to 65 percent are not reaching the water.
NORRIS: Have you ever seen it go down like this?
Ms. JOSEPH: I have not personally seen it this low. Some people have told me that they felt that it was as low as - and of course, they're not dealing with statistical data. So I have not seen it this low, no.
NORRIS: Now, you live in Georgia, so you know…
Ms. JOSEPH: Yeah.
NORRIS: …that Governor Perdue held a press conference on Saturday. I understand that he actually got up on one of those boat docks…
Ms. JOSEPH: Yes.
NORRIS: …and asked the federal government to limit the amount of water that's being diverted downstream to help the endangered species in Florida. What did you think about his message?
Ms. JOSEPH: I don't know that there is any other way other than federal intervention. And even though our congressmen and senators have taken a very strong stand on it in Washington, I don't know that - I don't know where else we would go except presidential intervention.
I really think it's going to come down to a growth issue. I don't think the people in our particular area that I'm talking about - our government officials, developers and so forth - have taken into consideration that there is a finite supply of water.
NORRIS: That was Jackie Joseph. She was in Buford, Georgia. She's president of the Lake Lanier Association. That's a volunteer group that's working to protect the lake's water quality.
NORRIS: Thank you for taking time to talk to us.
Ms. JOSEPH: Certainly.
NORRIS: Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue wants to limit the diversion of water from Lake Lanier. And he joins us now to explain why.
Gov. PERDUE: Good afternoon.
NORRIS: Now, it took weeks, if not months, for the lake to get to this level where you - the shoreline is now out 50, 60 feet. Why are you just now declaring the state of emergency and asking the federal government to step - and you're laughing, so I guess you've heard this question before. Why now?
Gov. PERDUE: Well, not necessarily. This is sort of a last step for us. We've been imploring the Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wild Life Service for months now to limit the amount flows downstream because we recognize that the storage was being depleted in Lake Lanier for drinking water purposes, and we've been unsuccessful in that.
And therefore, last Friday, we did file an injunction in the middle district court in Florida to ask a judge to do that as well as the executive branch in the federal government. The president is - can only act in relief under Endangered Species Act with the declaration of disaster. And that's what I've done in 85 counties in Georgia. And have thus asked the president to declare a federal disaster, so that there can be some common sense relief from an Endangered Species Act, which we all agree with the purpose. But we do not believe that act was enacted to put the needs of animals above humans.
NORRIS: But governor, some say that you should've done these months ago.
Gov. PERDUE: Well, I think, probably there're always answers of, you should, you could, you ought to have done that. I'm not a blue boy that cries wolf. We have explored the avenues that work for us in a respectful way with the Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service. When those seemed to be not working - declaring an emergency is not something I take lightly.
NORRIS: Mm-hmm. Now, by way of explanation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service say that they can't just stop diverting water on their own. They say they have to continue with this diversion because of the requirements under the Endangered Species Act.
Gov. PERDUE: And that's the very point, Michele, that I'm bringing up. I don't believe that was the regional intent of the Endangered Species Act, that water would be diverted away from potential human use in order to protect endangered species. And that's exactly what we have in Lake Lanier, and this whole Chattahoochee Watershed.
And that's what I'm calling the question about. Certainly, America does not believe that the mussels or the sturgeon of the Lower Chattahoochee deserve more water than the humans of children and babies in Atlanta to drink.
NORRIS: And do you expect that the president is going to help you out?
Gov. PERDUE: I certainly hope so. As a former governor, I think he understands the vitality of this issue. And I will implore him to take action.
NORRIS: You know, this drought, it seems, raises serious questions about water management, in particularly in the Atlanta metropolitan region. As Atlanta been allowed to grow - what we consider to be, sort of, Metro-Atlanta be allowed to grow - beyond what's actually sustainable?
Gov. PERDUE: I think what we have to recognize, this is a drought of historic proportions. Georgia has never been in this situation regarding rainfall before. Georgia is a blessed state. And, usually, we get adequate rainfall.
We are hurt by the fact that we have an outdated water control plan in our reservoir system that we think waste the water in a way that is not helpful to either animals or humans. And that's the problem. When you don't get any rain and you have a Corps of Engineer and a Fish and Wildlife Service that send the storage capacity of water that you can hold in your reservoirs downstream for purposes that supersede human needs, that becomes a real issue.
NORRIS: Thank you, Governor, for speaking with us.
Gov. PERDUE: Okay. Thank you.
NORRIS: That was Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue. He joined us from his office in the capitol in Atlanta.
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