High and Dry in the South

Mother Nature started the drought. How man made it worse

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Seeking a change in policy, Couch and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue asked the corps for a compromise: an immediate but temporary reduction in the flow from Lanier. Last week, the corps responded by denying the state's request. In a statement following the corps's response, Perdue said that he was moving to file a lawsuit. "The corps has left us no choice," the statement said. "Georgia is out of time."

Meanwhile, in a show of rare bipartisan support, the Georgia delegation in Congress last week filed a pair of bills that would suspend parts of the Endangered Species Act during times of drought. That move has stoked the ire of environmentalists, who say that the mussels are a vital part of the region's ecosystem, and observers say the bills are likely to face defeat.

Still, there may be a more promising, less drastic way to resolve the stalemate. Among the key players, including the corps itself, there remains a critical, unresolved question: Does the corps's policy have a strong scientific basis, or has it adopted unnecessarily stringent requirements? The answer could prove vital to negotiations. According to Tom MacKenzie, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the flow rate that was mandated in 2006—5,000 cubic feet per second—is not indelible. It is possible, he says, that the number could go lower. Moreover, he says, the figure of 5,000 cfs was proposed originally by the corps because it met "minimum operating needs" for power plants, not because it met some scientific absolute for the animals.

A spokesperson for the corps said that the agency is in discussions with the wildlife service about revising its policy but declined to cite specifics. Other parties, including the state of Florida, which traditionally has pressured the corps to release more water downstream, also are intimating flexibility, although little progress had been made to date. "We've offered several times to start dialogue with Georgia," says Sarah Williams, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

In the interim, both states have been preaching conservation. Residents of Georgia are now under mandatory outdoor watering bans, and local water police are enforcing fines, some upwards of $500 for repeat offenders. A hotline has been set up so neighbors can rat each other out. If the crisis deepens, as expected, more drastic measures may be enacted. Officials have been reticent about citing specifics, but one possible option would involve curtailing the operations of businesses—food producers, sod farmers—that are currently exempt from the ban.

Even if a resolution is reached this fall and a full-scale fiasco is avoided, many observers say that the same problem could return in force in the absence of real reform. In fact, as convenient as it may be for state officials to point the finger at the corps, which is already under tough public scrutiny for the accidental release of 22 billion gallons of water from Lake Lanier in 2006, there is certainly ample blame to go around. For 17 years, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama have made steady business out of taking each other to court; each one wants more water for itself, and no one wants less. Georgia, meanwhile, has lagged in planning; more than five years have passed since a state committee issued recommendations for a statewide water management plan.

Couch says that her office will introduce such a plan before the legislature. Observers say it's about time. "This is a situation where we have had a real failure in all three of these states and the federal government," says Rhett Jackson, a professor of hydrology at the University of Georgia. "They've been letting this sit for more than a decade."