High and Dry in the South

Mother Nature started the drought. How man made it worse


The Amblema neislereii mussel, also known as the fat threeridge, lives in the rivers of southern Georgia and northern Florida, in shallow water. Judging from its physical profile, poor motor skills, and utter lack of consciousness, there is little in its appearance or behavior that would attract much attention. In 1998, it was named an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but even that move, and the protection that followed, did little to raise its profile.

So consider the drama that is now unfolding in the drought-stricken South, where the brown, ovular mussel has been put in an oddly prominent position: a central player in the blame game behind what is fast becoming the worst water crisis in the history of the region. It's a crisis so dire that Georgia officials last week warned metro Atlanta residents that their supply of readily available drinking water could vanish by January.

The extent of the water crisis, details of which have only recently become public, is frightening in its breadth. Lake Lanier, in northern Georgia, is the main source of water for parts of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, including more than 3 million residents in metropolitan Atlanta. As of last week it was down 15 feet, a near record, and dropping at a rate of 5 feet per month. Docks that once lapped in the wake of jet skis now loom like preying mantises above an exposed and crumbling lakebed. And in the absence of plentiful rainfall to break the current spell—the Southeast's most widespread drought in more than 100 years—authorities say that Lake Lanier could exhaust its regular storage in 100 days or less. "How do you operate businesses or industries?" says Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. "How do people get drinking water?"

By any measure, Mother Nature has contributed heavily to the plight. Rainfall in Atlanta, usually on par with Olympia, Wash., is 50 percent below normal this year. Corn and soybean crops have tanked; in Virginia, the usually thick-skinned peanut crop is withering. A wildfire in Georgia and Florida this summer, kindled by heat and dry air, scorched more than 900 miles of farmland, making it the biggest natural fire in the South since 1898.

Man vs. mollusk. But to the extent that the drought's immediate effect is a story of man vs. nature, the water crisis itself is more aptly a tale of man vs. man—and man vs. mollusk. "The crisis today is a natural drought being compounded by a man-made drought," says Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Enter the mussels, and a supporting cast of human and government characters: politicians, feuding states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Among them they have given voice to charges of mismanagement, selfishness, irresponsibility, and myopia.

In an immediate sense, their dispute begins here: For the past four months, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoir at Lake Lanier, has been releasing lake water at a faster rate than it is refilling it. The corps says it has had no choice. Three species of aquatic life—the fat threeridge mussel and two others, the purple bankclimber mussel and the gulf sturgeon, a prehistoric fish—live in the waters that are fed by Lake Lanier, and their habitats are protected by the Endangered Species Act. In part to ensure its compliance with the law, the corps last year mandated a minimum flow of water through the protected habitats. Later ratified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the policy has since become binding. "We can only make decisions within the confines of law and policy," says Corps of Engineers Maj. Daren Payne. In addition, the corps says it must continue to send water down the Chattahoochee River to replenish the reservoirs in southern Georgia and to operate a nuclear power plant in Dothan, Ala.

The result of the corps's actions, however, is that Lake Lanier is now dropping at unnaturally fast rates. To a number of critics, this is baffling, if not illogical. Chief among their complaints is what they consider the plan's reckless shortsightedness. "If [the corps] continues to release water at the current rate, it will completely run out," says Couch. "What is the benefit to the endangered species that are going to be exposed when that happens?"