As I Lay Sweating: Georgia Drought Official
I suspect William Faulkner – the renowned Mississippi novelist – would find amusement in our current system of assessing and declaring drought. It is a journey for many characters.
When I visited a metro Atlanta suburban cul-de-sac n’hood a week ago, manicured lawns got a soak around 5:00 PM, water features burbled, and potted annuals exhibited color. What drought?
But after weeks of record breaking heat, a lack of morning dew on my feet as I walk across open fields, a local river running at historic lows, months of below average rainfall, and a malfunctioning air conditioning system – I think these indicators empower me to officially declare drought in northeast Georgia.
I am alone, however, as there has been no “official” drought announcement from the Environmental Protection Division’s Director or the Governor’s Office. The Executive Branch’s only serious discussion of drought can be found in two places: EPD’s decision in May not to declare drought in the Flint River basin, and EPD’s following assessment that drought-induced low flows (and not King America Finishing’s outfall pipe) are behind the persistent death of Ogeechee River fish.
This aversion to declaring drought is striking for a number of reasons:
First, the U.S. Drought Monitor continues to identify 75 percent of Georgia – including metro Atlanta – as experiencing some form of drought based on an assessment of indicators (soil moisture, stream flow, etc.). If you look at the national map, Georgia is the doughtiest place in the whole country. Evidence suggests drought conditions in some parts of the country are as bad as those in the 1930s and as wide-spread as the 1950s.
Second, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified over 142 (out of 159) Georgia counties as “natural disaster” areas because of drought. The recent “Streamlined Disaster Designation Process” no longer requires Governors to make natural disaster requests before farmers can gain access to the federal “farm safety net.” Read more about the details in the press release; list of counties; and map.
Third, as of Independence Day, at least two more Georgia communities have humbly requested permission from EPD to alter their local water conservation planning as required by the Georgia Water Stewardship Act.
Fourth, the major U.S. Army Corps reservoirs – Lakes Lanier, Hartwell, and Clarks Hill – are feeling the burn from our recent historic heat wave. Local reservoirs – in Athens for example – are also taxed despite recent and short cloudbursts.
Finally, even Congress has displayed interest in drought: how to define it; its history; its regionally specific and relative nature; the federal and non-federal (and sometimes overlapping) layers of drought management; and how drought has played out over the last few years in Texas and California as well as the Colorado River and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basins. Drought is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon but it is not a space alien. The recent Congressional Research Report – “Drought in the United States: Causes and Issues” – is good reading for thinking about and acting quickly upon drought’s manifestation in Georgia.
What can Georgia’s leadership do? The 2010 Georgia Water Stewardship Act was good policy but has functioned better as a public relations strategy that says “Georgia’s water problems have been solved and we’re open for business!”
In reality, we need to turn the legislation into functional policy and daily ritual. This can start with updating Georgia’s Drought Management Plan (circa 2003) and a rewrite of Georgia’s “drought management rule.” Doing so would institutionalize sound pre-drought strategies and avoid the bungled and crisis response we appear to be approaching. And, we might cultivate a real “culture of conservation” in the process while avoiding a “backward” water and economic development program.