IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

South's long-term drought plan just a mirage

Cities in the drought-stricken Southeast might be down to just a few months of easily accessible water, and the faucets could run dry if reservoirs aren't replenished soon.
Atlanta Water Supply Declines Due To Drought
This boat ramp at Georgia's Lake Lanier remains closed on Oct. 25 due to shrinking water levels. The lake is a major water source for the region.Jessica Mcgowan / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Townspeople stood in the sweltering heat at grocery stores and community centers, waiting to fill plastic jugs with water. Tanker trucks rumbled down the highways, bringing relief to a thirsty town suddenly gone dry.

That was the scene 13 years ago when the Georgia city of Macon ran out of water. But it could also be a glimpse of the very near future in Atlanta and some other cities in the drought-stricken Southeast.

They may be down to just a few months of easily accessible water, and the faucets could run dry if reservoirs aren't replenished soon.

The state of Georgia said it has lined up contracts with vendors to bring in bottled water and tanker trucks that could dispense water into jugs, jars and buckets.

"Are we going to get to that point? I don't know. But the most important thing is to be prepared," said Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

But the state, the city of Atlanta and the Georgia National Guard, which could be called into action by the governor to deliver water in an emergency, have yet to work out the details of exactly where the water would be distributed and how, saying it is too soon to say where it might be needed.

No long-term plan
In any case, those are just emergency measures for supplying people with the water they need for drinking, cooking, bathing and flushing the toilet. Atlanta and other communities have yet to settle on a long-term solution if the water runs out.

State and city officials have talked about building more reservoirs, pipelines and pumps, but they have not adopted a plan, and none of those ideas are quick fixes.

"We don't think that the worst-case scenario is likely, but we are thinking about what we might do if we don't get rain before next summer," said Atlanta city water spokeswoman Janet Ward. "We are pretty much looking at every option."

Bill Bozarth, director of the Georgia arm of the government watchdog group Common Cause, wondered why the state has not come up with a plan yet. "You would think the water crisis would start to become more of a priority," he said.

Time may be running out.

Before the area got a little rain over the past few weeks, authorities said that Lake Lanier, the Georgia reservoir that supplies most of metropolitan Atlanta's 5 million people, had less than four months of readily available water left. And an unusually dry winter is forecast.

FEMA warehousing water
Water vendors are preparing for the worst. Lipsey Mountain Spring Water, a vendor with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is in contract talks with the state, said it has about 4 million liters of water in warehouses in Georgia and Florida.

Other towns in the Southeast are also in dire straits.

In Durham, N.C., population 210,000, officials fear there is less than two months of accessible water left. The city is trying to conserve to stave off the worst.

Athens, Ga., a college town of roughly 110,000 people about 60 miles from Atlanta, recently reached an agreement with water companies to pump more water into a dwindling reservoir. Now the city is "cautiously optimistic" its lake could refill over the winter, said city spokesman Jeff Montgomery.

Macon's memory
As for what might happens if the tap runs dry, Georgians do not have to look any further than Macon, whose water plant was knocked out by Tropical Storm Alberto's floodwaters in 1994. Many of the city's 160,000 residents were without water for three weeks.

State and federal authorities trucked in millions of gallons of water, set up 26 staging areas around the city and hauled in 2,200 portable bathrooms, said Johnny Wingers, director of Macon's emergency management agency.

"I get chill bumps thinking about it," he said. "It's 21 days I'll never forget. It burned an indelible impression in my brain."