“Thirsty City” traces history of Atlanta’s water crisis and fight with Florida


Atlanta created its own legal mess over water because in 1950, then-Mayor William B. Hartsfield refused to spend a little more than $1 million to help pay for Lake Lanier, writes Skye Borden in “Thirsty City: Politics, Greed and the Making of Atlanta’s Water Crisis.”

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“Thirsty City: Politics, Greed and the Making of Atlanta’s Water Crisis,” by Skye Borden, SUNY Press.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been locked in a legal fight since 1990 over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. Georgia and Alabama want water for cities, recreation and hydropower while Florida wants water for its seafood industry in Apalachicola Bay.

In 2013, Florida Gov. Rick Scott accused Georgia of wasting water and asked the U. S. Supreme Court to divide water among the states. The Supreme Court in October agreed to take up the case.

I’ve been covering the issue for 15 years. And now I’m working on my own book about Apalachicola oysters and competing uses of water along the river system in the three states.

“Thirsty City” (SUNY Press, $75) helps me by explaining how Atlanta came to be the sprawling metropolis dependent on a relatively small stream — the Chatthoochee River — to provide drinking water and carry away pollution.

Borden, a lawyer in Alabama who works as a research and policy consultant with a specialty in water pollution and wetland mitigation, calls Atlanta “an accidental city.”

While other cities often are located near major water sources such as rivers or lakes, Borden explains that Atlanta in 1838 was simply located at the end of the railroad tracks that sliced through the region’s dense woods.

“In light of how much the city has grown, it is amazing to think about just how arbitrarily the city was located and created,” she writes.

From the start, Atlanta’s tiny streams barely were able to provide enough water for cooking and drinking, with little left over for firefighting or any other use, Borden writes.

As Atlanta grew after the Civil War, garbage along with raw sewage flushed from homes polluted streams and the city’s first reservoir on the South River. The city built its first pumping station along the Chattahoochee River in 1893, providing developers and industry access to cheap water that Borden says would fuel the city’s booming growth.

But by 1940, the city was drawing more water from the Chattahoochee than was available in the entire river during the area’s worst recorded drought. The city had doubled its rate of water usage in just 20 years and was likely to do so again in the coming decades.

In the late 1930s, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers investigated creating a navigation channel and system of reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River but concluded it wasn’t feasible upstream from Columbus, Ga. to Atlanta. But Atlanta’s Mayor Hartsfield and local business leaders continued to push for Lake Lanier, the big federal reservoir north of Atlanta.

But the city didn’t want to chip in just $1 million to help build the project. Instead, the reservoir was authorized in federal law only for flood control, navigation and hydropower. That refusal, Borden writes, became the crux of the legal dispute that still was being played out in 2012.

That’s when the U. S. Supreme Court refused to hear Florida’s request to reconsider an appeals court decision siding with Atlanta.

In 2009, U. S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson ruled that Georgia cities were not authorized to take water from Lake Lanier because the reservoir and dam were not built for water supply. He gave states three years to work out a water-sharing agreement.

But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Georgia was entitled to the water under the Water Supply Act of 1958.

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Skye Borden

With that portion of the legal dispute having been settled in 2012, Borden argues, as have many others, that Atlanta should follow the lead of Seattle and Boston and “grow smart instead of simply growing big.”

To me, that’s good advice for any city, whether it is surrounded by desert or rainforest. But it’s also vague as to what growing smart means or how it would solve Atlanta’s water problems or the interstate water dispute.

If growing big means not installing lawns and golf courses that use water, then OK — I understand: That kind of conservation helps avoid crises during droughts and leaves more water for downstream users.

But if “growing smart” means a continued population increase, then presumably those new residents still would need close to the same amount of water used for showers and washing cars. And if those people aren’t living in Atlanta but are living somewhere else in the ACF basin, aren’t they still using the same water?

Sure, water conservation and planning is the crux of the issue, but that isn’t what “Thirsty City” is about. I’m going to try to address it in a chapter about lasting solutions in my book.

Borden also questions Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s plans to build more dams to meet the state’s future water needs.

“Throughout the city’s history, Atlanta’s politicians have suffered under the delusion that somewhere, somehow, an inexhaustible regional water supply can be achieved,” Borden writes. “But such a supply does not exist.”

And she concludes that Atlanta is a “nearly unshakable force, bulldozing its way outward in an ever-expanding ring of impact.”

“The thirsty city continues to churn forward, while never looking back,” she said.

Perhaps. But I don’t think Atlanta is the bad actor that many Florida politicians make it out to be.

“Thirsty City” points out that bad planning and unrealistic views about water led to Atlanta’s water crisis. Such planning was typical of the era and cities across the country are having to deal with inefficient, aging water systems.

Atlanta is metropolitan area of 4.5 million people whose decisions about water use affect the Florida Panhandle. People in Georgia and Florida alike continue to focus too much on water storage and not enough on water conservation.

If there is hope for the people living along Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay as well as the fish and wildlife there, then Atlanta must look back and learn from its past.

And it must plan for a better future that is more sustainable, perhaps a future without new dams on streams and rivers.

And that goes for cities in Florida cities as well — and the rest of the nation.

(Photos courtesy of Skye Borden and SUNY Press. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from bruceBritchie@gmail.com.)