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Environews Spheres of Influence Drought in the Southeast Lessons for Water Management ong spared the persistent droughts that have plagued the west- ern United States this century, the Southeast suddenly finds L itself the most rain-starved region of the country. In the face of this threat, policy makers and utility companies are struggling to iden- tify sensible, sustainable options for managing the region’s water. Although there currently is no immediate public health threat posed by the Southeastern drought, it does point to a very real situation in regions around the world that struggle to maintain an adequate supply of potable water. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, as global temperatures increase due to rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, so does evaporation. That, combined with cyclical drought, could pose dire threats to water supplies. By one model, published in volume 78, issue 5 (2006) of the Journal of Hydrometeorology, if global warming–related pre- cipitation changes continue apace, the percentage of the Earth’s surface in severe drought could rise from the current 3% to 30% by 2100. The Southeastern drought has already had serious economic conse- quences, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, which estimates in its Winter 2008 DroughtScape newsletter that 2007 losses to major field crops including corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and hay totaled more than $1.3 billion. Cattle farmers, nursery and landscape businesses, and recreation and tourism also have been hard hit. Low lake levels have forced power companies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Duke Energy in North Carolina to reduce electricity generation from cheap, renewable hydropower and substitute more expensive and polluting fossil fuels. By the same token, if cooling reservoir levels were to fall far enough, it could force the shutdown of nuclear power plants. Prolonged drought has shut down recreational activity at Lake Allatoona in Acworth, Georgia, as shown in this 2 November 2007 photo. AP Photo/John Bazemore Spheres of Influence Drought in the Southeast Environmental Health Perspectives • VOLUME 116 | NUMBER 4 | April 2008 A 169 Spheres of Influence Drought in the Southeast The drought is having political conse- the Southeast remained abnormally dry. certifies manufacturers and products that quences as well, pitting downstream and Hard-hit water systems began rolling out a comply with EPA specifications for water effi- upstream water users against each other. For host of programs and policies to buttress their ciency. And in Cobb County, local lawncare example, Alabama and Florida successfully pleas for conservation. businesses that offer their customers Give sued Georgia over a state plan for withdraw- Them An Inch educational materials can Efforts to Conserve ing water from Lake Lanier, the main source become program “partners.” of drinking water for the Atlanta metro Conservation measures and programs under- A fourth means of promoting conserva- region. Lake Lanier feeds the Chattahoochee taken by municipalities and utilities generally tion is the adoption of water rates designed to River, which supplies water to towns in fall into four categories. The first is mandato- discourage excessive use. According to Jeff Alabama and Florida and whose flow is key to ry restrictions on certain types of water use. Hughes, director of the Environmental the survival of a host of endangered species Restrictions on irrigation of residential lawns Finance Center (EFC) at the University of such as freshwater mussels and sturgeon. The are one of the most visible and effective ways North Carolina at Chapel Hill, most utilities three states have feuded since 1989 over how to conserve water. Raleigh, North Carolina, in the Southeast historically have relied on to divide the water, but the drought has exac- has also banned car washing except at facilities declining block rates, meaning they charged erbated the problem as the various parties that comply with a conservation certification lower prices for higher water consumption. fight over a much-reduced volume of water. program, prohibited filling of new swimming That is beginning to change. For example, pools, required that water leaks be repaired OWASA adopted a seasonal rate in June A Dry Southeast within 24 hours of notification by the city 2001, charging more for water use in the After an extended dry period stretching back public utility’s director, prohibited serving summer when demand was higher. In to fall 2005, rains in the winter of 2006–2007 drinking water in restaurants unless requested, October 2007, the utility switched to a tiered offered some respite to the Southeast. But the and directed innkeepers to ask guests to reuse block rate for residential customers starting at fall 2007 arrival of La Niña, a condition that their towels and linens between laundering. $1.98 per thousand gallons for the first 2,999 recurs every few years and can persist as long A second category of conservation gallons. The rate for the 6,000- to 10,999- as two years, diverted seasonal rains north and measures involves giveaways or rebates of gallon bracket is $5.53 per thousand gallons; in west. The hurricanes and tropical storms that water-saving devices, including low-flow contrast, 378 water utilities sampled in the state had bailed the region out in past dry summers showerheads and toilets, faucet aerators, and by the EFC charge a median price of $2.98 per failed to materialize. replacement toilet flappers (warped flappers thousand gallons at that consumption level. As the drought persisted, political leaders allow water to leak). A 2004 study by the “We went from a seasonal to a tiered urged citizens to limit their water use. “I Tampa Water Department and the U.S. structure to provide a positive financial incen- encourage all Georgians to make their dry Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), tive to people who use the least amount of lawns and dirty cars a badge of honor,” said Tampa Water Department Residential Water water,” says Ed Holland, planning director for Georgia governor Sonny Perdue in a 25 Conservation Study, showed that retrofitting OWASA. “Under the seasonal structure, low October 2007 press release. Proactive utilities homes with such devices lowered daily water users were paying the same unit cost as every- like North Carolina’s Orange Water and usage by an average of 92 gallons (46%) per body else. With the tiered structure, they’re Sewer Authority (OWASA), which enacted household. Stemming leakage resulted in rewarded for lower use.” year-round conservation requirements after an substantial savings of 15 gallons per person Results earlier severe drought in 2002, activated addi- per day. According to the study, toilet leaks tional restrictions as soon as the potential contribute the most to household leakage. Efforts to lower water usage in the Southeast severity of the current drought became appar- In 1993 the City of Tampa began offer- have yielded modest results. Cities including ent. The Birmingham (Alabama) Water ing rebates of up to $100 on low-flow toilets. Atlanta, Raleigh, and Durham (North Works imposed a surcharge on about 25,000 Toilets installed before 1994 typically use Carolina) have reported declines in consump- of its customers for excess water usage in June. 3.5–7.0 gallons per flush. In 1994, the EPA tion of 7–11% over the same period last year. Georgia’s Environmental Protection began requiring all toilets sold in the United The Georgia EPD announced in a 25 Jan- Division (EPD) declared a level four drought States to use no more than 1.6 gallons per uary 2008 press release that the 80 water sys- response for all counties in northern Georgia flush, although many old toilets remain in tems in northern Georgia collectively (an area that includes Atlanta), prohibiting use. As of the end of 2005, the city had pro- achieved a savings of 13.3% over the previous most outdoor residential water use. At the end vided $3 million in rebates to replace 33,765 year. “The December water use figures are a of October, Perdue directed the Georgia EPD toilets for an annual savings of 434 million shining example of water conservation at to modify surface water and groundwater gallons. The program will end in April 2008 work,” EPD director Carol A. Couch was withdrawal and drinking water permits to due to financial constraints. quoted as saying. achieve a 10% reduction in water withdrawals Following this news and reacting to pres- Educational programs are a third way to in the same region. Georgia is unique among promote conservation. Such programs are sure from various industry and business Southeastern states in having statewide per- widespread and extend from the federal to the groups, Georgia has relaxed some of its mitting authority over entities and companies local level. The EPA’s WaterSense program, restrictions on water use. The EPD that withdraw more than 100,000 gallons per for example, offers tips on how consumers can announced that facilities that return approxi- day or that operate a drinking water system reduce normal usage by 20%. In Georgia, mately 100% of the water to the source (e.g., serving 25 or more people. In contrast, other Cobb County’s Give Them An Inch…Grow to the watershed) will no longer be subject to states may require localities to submit water A Yard program shows residents how to main- the 10% reduction requirement. Georgia plans and may require permits for with- tain a healthy lawn using just an inch of water power plants are no longer included in the drawals in designated areas, but do not exert per week (at press time, Cobb County resi- water use calculations; because plant water use control statewide. dents were still allowed to hand-water estab- depends on operation of the power grid to Winter came. Reservoir levels continued lished landscaping on a designated schedule). meet electrical needs, Georgians are now to drop. Groundwater and streams failed to Such programs often include a certifica- being “asked to conserve water by also con- recharge. By mid-February 2008, nearly all of tion component. For example, WaterSense serving energy,” according to the press release. A 170 VOLUME 116 | NUMBER 4 | April 2008 • Environmental Health Perspectives Spheres of Influence Drought in the Southeast What measures have yielded the most Hughes says utilities need to charge Thompson also wants to see states do results? Mandatory restrictions on outdoor more for water, and they need to set their more to rein in agricultural use of water. “In watering are clearly effective in the short rates high enough to cover the real cost of North Carolina, agricultural users are only term. “We knock off about three million gal- providing that water. “Utilities are starting required to report withdrawals of water in lons per day by going to one-day-a-week to realize that their rates are not sufficient to excess of one million gallons per day,” he watering,” says Allan Williams, water cover maintenance, plan for future needs, says; agriculture earns a reporting exemption resources director for the City of Greensboro and build new supply,” he says. “They are because food production is a vital activity. (North Carolina). “If we ban all outdoor starting to realize they need to adjust their “Other [nonagricultural] users must report watering, we knock off about eight million rates more often.” withdrawals above a hundred thousand gal- gallons per day.” Sydney Miller, water resources program lons per day.” Surcharges on excessive water use also manager for the Triangle J Council of Burgeoning population growth in the appear to work. The Birmingham Water Governments, a planning group in Research Southeast—a 20% increase between 1999 Works reported that consumption declined Triangle Park, North Carolina, says federal and 2000 alone, according to an article in the from an average of 114 million gallons per grants historically provided the money to 18 October 2007 issue of BusinessWeek—has day to about 95 million gallons per day after build local water and sewer infrastructure. put a strain on local water supplies during dry initiating its surcharge. Utilities only needed to recover their operat- periods. Some policy makers and analysts are But restrictions and surcharges are tem- ing costs. Miller says there was also political beginning to call for constraints on that porary measures. Experts say that to reduce pressure to keep water costs low, to make growth. “Most of the blame [for water short- water consumption over the long term, utili- water affordable for those least able to pay. ages] at the moment is falling squarely on his- ties need to charge more for water, and they “A lot of factors led us to where we are torically low rainfall,” states the BusinessWeek need to charge customers a higher rate the today, and the utilities are trying to catch article. “But an equally important culprit has more they use. “I think the tiered rate struc- up,” he says. been the unbridled growth in the Southeast ture has been the most successful tool in Hughes says annual rate setting is in the past 50 years [where the] abundance of terms of managing demand,” says Williams. becoming more common, explaining, “Some cheap water has long fueled development.” “We went to this rate structure in 1998 and systems were not raising rates but once every The Christian Science Monitor reported have seen residential consumption drop fif- fifteen years. We promote smaller, more on 4 February 2008 that Paulding County, teen percent over the last ten years.” moderate increases on a regular basis.” At the Georgia, whose population swelled by 49% As for public education and hardware same time, he says, short-range revenue from 2000 to 2006, froze rezoning applica- giveways, Williams doubts these have much shortfalls have become a major problem for tions in October 2007, fearing that new effect. “Until you start poking people in the many communities. There are many fixed construction would further strain dwindling wallet,” he says, “you won’t change behavior costs involved in providing water treatment, water supplies. In Raleigh, the debate over on a permanent basis.” he says, and a utility that suddenly sells 25% growth is fierce. City council member less water will not see its costs go down 25%. Thomas Crowder called on the city to tem- Modifications Necessary Many may see hardly any decrease in cost, porarily raise the fees it charges for water Policy makers, citizen groups, academic and as a result, they often have to respond to connections and to consider adopting experts, and utility representatives have sug- sudden consumption drops by increasing “water capacity impact fees” to offset future gested a variety of modifications to current prices just so they can stay revenue-neutral. utility costs. That spawned a protest from practices to help people conserve. Holland “The public,” he adds, “often does not fellow councilman Philip Isley. “This is a de says one of the first things needed is a better understand the finances of water production facto growth moratorium,” Isley was quoted way for consumers to track their water and responds negatively: ‘Is this what we get as saying in a 1 February 2008 story in the usage. “A lot of water systems only send out for conserving?’” Raleigh News & Observer. Within weeks, bills every two or three months, and it’s Hughes supports tiered rate structures to however, another city council member, often difficult to decipher how many gal- promote conservation in many communi- Rodger Koopman, proposed a de jure mora- lons of water are actually being billed,” he ties, but says these structures must be cus- torium, which city mayor Charles Meeker says. “People need timely billing in order to tomized to local circumstances. “Tiered rate has said he opposes on the grounds it could track the effectiveness of their practices, and structures are not all the same,” he says. put the city’s economy into recession. the bills should be educational.” “Some are set so high that they shave off Meanwhile, North Carolina’s environ- Most homes and apartments have water excessive uses for a small part of the cus- mental leaders have started a year-long study meters with which customers could moni- tomer base, but have little impact on of the state’s water supplies and policies to tor their daily use, but Holland says these encouraging the average user to use water determine if state regulators should play a meters are often inconveniently located and more prudently.” larger role in decisions about allocating water hard to read: “First you have to find the Others want to see improvements in the among local communities. “The population meter, then you have to open the lid, watch way new homes are built. “We need to make growth alone is going to make it impossible out for spiders, and then figure out if the sure that new homes have the most efficient for us to assume we can always count on numbers represent gallons, thousands of irrigation systems, rainwater catchment water for all purposes for all times,” Senator gallons, or hundred-cubic-foot units.” It devices, and indoor appliances,” says Rob Daniel Clodfelter, cochairman of North would be much better for consumers to Thompson, public interest advocate for the Carolina’s Environmental Review Commis- have real-time meters located in the house. North Carolina Public Interest Research sion, told the News & Observer. “There is Then, says Holland, “we’d start seeing the Group (NCPIRG). “That will require going to be competition for water in the ‘Prius effect,’” referring to the reported ten- changes to the building codes.” The poten- future. We want to take a look over the hori- dency of car owners to drive more conserva- tial for consequent increased costs could be a zon and see what kind of procedures we need tively when they have gauges like the concern for homebuilders and realty groups, to make sure we don’t end up in water wars.” Toyota Prius’s that register real-time fuel says Thompson, adding that these groups consumption. have opposed such increases in the past. John Manuel Environmental Health Perspectives • VOLUME 116 | NUMBER 4 | April 2008 A 171
Environmental Health Perspectives – Pubmed Central
Published: Apr 1, 2008
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