Metro Atlanta water use to increase much less than earlier predicted

Metro Atlanta residents are expected to use significantly less water by 2050 than earlier predicted, an applause-worthy development that might allow more water to flow downstream to communities fighting Georgia over an equitable share of the Chattahoochee and Coosa rivers.

The Atlanta region’s water district on Wednesday estimated that Atlanta will use 25 percent less water by 2050 than was estimated as recently as 2009. The agency credits a slew of conservation measures for the reduction. A slowdown in population growth will also help Atlanta save water.

Any lessening in demand for water is worth celebrating in drought-susceptible Georgia. Predictions of lower usage could also play a critical role in the ongoing water wars between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, which are wrangling in court over ways to share the major rivers that begin in North Georgia.

“The less water we’re using, the more supply we’ll have to carry us into the future. And that translates into more water downstream, too,” said Katherine Zitsch, the director of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. “Conservation and efficiency are making a big impact.”

Every five years or so the water district, per state mandate, forecasts future water consumption. In 2009, the district predicted metro Atlantans would use 1,202 million gallons daily in 2050 taking showers, watering lawns and running dishwashers. Now, the water wizards predict Atlantans will use between 862 million and 898 million gallons daily in 2050 — one-fourth less than previously prognosticated.

The region currently uses about 560 million gallons per day, according to the water district.

Conservation efforts get credit

Zitsch credits the replacement of inefficient toilets, improved detection and repair of leaks, and tiered pricing that charges higher rates for heavy users.

“Forecasts show that our conservation measures are taking hold,” she said. “Efficiency is a big part of it, too. Folks in metro Atlanta are replacing inefficient toilets, so when they flush they use less water. And conservation (pricing) rates also help. People now know that when they water their lawns, they feel the effect in their water bill.”

Per-capita consumption of water will also drop significantly, compared with 2009 estimates.

Still, metro Atlantans will use roughly 50 percent more water in 2050 than today if the district’s predictions hold true. Downstreamers, including people along the Flint River, which begins below Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, want Atlanta to hoard less water in lakes Lanier and Allatoona.

“These predictions are bad news for downstreamers, not good news, particularly in the upper Flint, which has sections that run dry or nearly so even during ‘normal’ years,” said Gordon Rogers, the Flint Riverkeeper. “Downstreamers beware!”

Smaller population increases also cited

A significant tail-off in once-lofty population gains will go a long way toward a lower demand for water. In 2009, the district predicted the 15-county metropolitan area would top 9 million residents. Now, the district predicts between 7.9 million and 8.3 million residents.

“If the population projections are not high, and water consumption numbers are not high, then Georgia may not need as much water that they’ve said they do,” said Juliet Cohen, the executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which has long pushed for greater conservation measures. “In the water wars litigation, you don’t want to show that the region needs any less water.”

Florida’s latest legal salvo against Georgia, in 2013, claimed that metro Atlanta’s water consumption caused great damage to the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry because too little Chattahoochee River water made it to the Gulf of Mexico. Oysters need a healthy diet of fresh and salt water. Atlanta, in essence, killed that balance, Florida argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court has designated a “special master” to resolve the rightful apportionment of the Chattahoochee River between Georgia and Florida. The master ordered the water warriors, as well as Alabama officials, to cut a deal. Gov. Nathan Deal has met a few times with his Florida and Alabama counterparts to try to do just that. He declined to comment Wednesday.

“I can’t speculate on how our water demand forecast impacts the water wars,” Zitsch said. “The first step in any water planning is defining demand, then looking at supply. The region needs to plan for adequate supply, and regional reservoirs are definitely part of that answer.”

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