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Georgia Drought Redux: Reading Between the Lines of the News

September 19, 2011

As another Georgia summer turns to fall, low river flows and dropping reservoir levels have called to mind the late summer of 2007, when the state found itself entering a catastrophic drought.

Tropical Storm Lee brought a welcome change in the weather at the time, as the AJC reported after the storm had passed, but it was far from being a drought-breaker. Even Lake Lanier rose only an inch after the storm, according to the Gainesville Times, which also reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will continue to let the lake’s level fall in order to provide water downstream throughout the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system for municipal water supply, power plants, endangered species protection, recreation… you get the point.

In the Athens area, which saw barely half an inch of Lee’s tropical rains, local officials have finally decided to ask state authorities for permission to institute water-saving drought-response measures. Key word: permission. That’s because of the new system brought about by Georgia House Bill 1281 in 2008 after heavy lobbying by the “green industry,” a group of stakeholders including  landscaping contractors, nurseries and other commercial horticulture business owners who fell on hard economic times during the especially dry 2007-08 season. HB 1281 was the bill that made it difficult for local jurisdictions to put water use restrictions in place that are any more stringent than the state’s. (For more background, see some of the more contemporary news still to be found online about HB 1281 here and here.)

The status of state restrictions, meanwhile, hinges on whether Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has declared a statewide drought status of any kind. So far this year, EPD has done no such thing. This lack of a state drought declaration is despite Gov. Nathan Deal’s recent successful request for the federal government to assist Georgia farmers who are suffering in drought conditions. (To see the Governor himself actually use the D-word, read his office’s press release here.) It is also despite the state climatologist’s Aug. 31 statement that every county in the state had entered some form of drought. (More on the state climatologist below.)

Reading between the lines of this inherent contradiction, it seems that the state’s drought management strategy is influenced much more by private-sector economic concerns than by concerns over prudent management of a public resource by community leaders and utilities. A drought-based request to the USDA brings in monetary relief for the agriculture industry, and the lack of a drought declaration at Georgia EPD means income can keep flowing into the “urban agriculture” business despite undesirable conditions in the field. (It is worth pointing out that the latter helps keep revenue flowing, too, for water utilities, which tend to experience some degree of financial stress during most droughts due to reductions in water use.)

To read even further between the lines, one can’t help but wonder where the sudden and mysterious sacking of Dr. David Stooksbury as Georgia’s state climatologist may or may not fit into the storyline of the Drought of 2011. This reading of the action on stage, as it were, is admittedly a step further than the facts at hand clearly indicate, but suffice it to say that veteran state capitol observer Tom Crawford sees plenty amiss in the Stooksbury dismissal.

Even if this year’s drought politics aren’t the unseen factor in the Stooksbury affair, cutting him out of the official loop will almost certainly erode the state’s capacity for fact-based decision-making on all kinds of weather- and climate-related conditions. As we’ve  written elsewhere on the Water Wire, when it comes to water management there are already plenty of moneyed lobbies influencing state decision-making; now, we can probably only expect the trend to continue.

-Ben Emanuel

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 3:03 pm

    Interestingly, the City of Griffin moved ahead with drought restrictions, notifying EPD, but not asking permission. Flint Riverkeeper has thanked and congratulated COG staff for doing so. You can read more at http://www.cityofgriffin.com/ . . . . just navigate to the COG’s homepage and scroll down a little. You will see the whole story.

    Emanuel is on target. Georgia’s water is in a drastic state of mismanagement, in wet times and dry.

    – Gordon Rogers, Flint Riverkeeper

  2. garivernetwork permalink*
    September 21, 2011 10:14 am

    Thanks, Gordon — this is very interesting news about the City of Griffin, and an important piece of the puzzle statewide.

    HB 1281 from the 2008 session is really coming home to roost this year, so it’s useful to see the different reactions to it.

    -Ben E

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