Atlantans backslide into wasting precious water

But they haven't reverted to previously high usage levels

Free of state-mandated restrictions, Atlantans have reverted to their watery ways, dousing lawns, cars and bodies with more and more of Lake Lanier’s still-precious water.

Water usage in July — the first month that North Georgians could water without much worry — rose 10 percent over July 2008, state officials said Friday.

But they aren’t unduly concerned about the increase, noting that Atlantans haven’t reverted to previously high levels of consumption.

Environmentalists, though, say North Georgians possess short memories and have already forgotten the drought.

“The news is disappointing,” said Jill Johnson, a lobbyist for Georgia Conservation Voters, which pushes a less-use-is-best-use water policy. “It shows that Georgians have not made conservation part of their daily lives.”

Linda MacGregor, with the state Environmental Protection Division, points out that the average daily withdrawal from Lanier in July (408 million gallons) was markedly better than the amount taken three years earlier (499 million).

“People are using more water because the restrictions have been removed,” said MacGregor, the state’s top watershed protector. “But the culture of conservation seems to be lasting because the water use has not gone up to previous levels.”

Just about everybody agrees that metro Atlanta is in a better, and wetter, place than 3½ years ago, when the drought officially began. David Stooksbury, the state’s climatologist, said Friday that Atlanta has received 20 percent more rain the past six months than it typically does.

Lake Lanier, the region’s main water source, no longer looks like a half-empty, dirty bathtub. The drought officially ended in March. And the state lifted watering restrictions in June. All’s well.

Not exactly.

A federal district judge ruled in July that metro Atlanta illegally taps Lanier. Judge Paul Magnuson said he’ll slash Atlanta’s daily withdrawal from Lanier in three years unless Congress sanctions the region’s use of the reservoir.

Georgia, Alabama and Florida — the three states that share the Chattahoochee River that feeds Lanier — would likely have to reach a water-divvying agreement before congressional approval could be obtained.

Development-oriented Atlanta will be in deep trouble, said Sally Bethea, if the judge’s ruling stands.

“It’s pretty clear that voluntary conservation measures alone are not doing the job we need to see post-Magnuson,” said Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

In July 2005, before the drought took hold and the state imposed watering restrictions, an average of 419 million gallons of water daily were pumped from Lanier or the Chattahoochee into Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties.

A year later, after the drought was declared and the state imposed mild watering restrictions, Atlantans pulled nearly 500 million gallons daily from the river and lake to keep their lawns green and cars washed. The drought worsened the following two years, and the restrictions tightened, so water usage plummeted — as expected.

On June 10, Gov. Sonny Perdue lifted the most severe restrictions allowing metro Atlantans to wash cars and water lawns three days a week at any time of day. Water usage returned to pre-drought levels.

“We expected water use to go up when we eased restrictions, that’s no surprise at all,” EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers said. “What is pleasantly surprising is that the amount they went up compares to 2007 and years before during similar conditions.”

Johnson, with the Conservation Voters, said the state may have lifted the watering ban too soon.

“We may not be at risk of drought, but we’ve lost the [conservation] ground we had made,” she said. “And we don’t have the policies in place to make sure we are conserving one of our most threatened, precious natural resources.”