Georgia Drought: You Don’t Miss Your Water…

Posted December 31, 2007

…’till, as Otis Redding told us, “your well runs dry.” Water crisis, often predicted to be one of the 21st century’s political flashpoints, has arrived in the southeastern United States. Over the past two years, the entire region has experienced a record-setting drought.

Crumb-dry lake Lanier.

Although we’ve gotten some rain in Georgia over the past week, 2007 narrowly escaped being the driest year on record. Linked to the La Nina weather cycle in the Pacific, next year is predicted to be even drier. In November, our good ol’ boy governor Sonny Perdue made headlines by organizing a public prayer for rain – reinforcing the mindset that separates apparent “acts of god” from the ecologically suicidal lack of planning inherent in capitalism. (Mike Davis explored the social dimensions of drought in his excellent book Late Victorian Holocausts, which details how the British Empire’s response to an 1870s El Nino drought killed tens of millions in India, China and Eastern Africa.)

Sprawling Atlanta

First, a little background. Atlanta has the smallest available watershed of any city its size in the United States. The metropolitan area has been a textbook case of urban sprawl – and one of the fastest growing population centers in the country – over the past two decades. Northeast Georgia’s Lake Lanier, a reservoir created when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Chattahoochee River the 1950s, supplies most of the water available downstream: not only to metro Atlanta but also several other municipal areas in southwestern Georgia, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle. The inter-state water politics are further complicated by the Tennessee River, a potential water source uphill from Atlanta and just beyond the state’s northern border. Tennessee doesn’t want to give up their water, and as far as I know haven’t yet been brought into the talks negotiating water management.

Of course, to the extent water issues appear in the media at all, the proposed remedies tend to center on moderation of personal use. Certainly the (over)use of water in sprawling residential areas plays a role in the shortage: in November we learned about an enormous house in suburban Cobb county that used an incredible 440,000 gallons in October, or 14,193 per day, for example.

How do you use 440,000 gallons
a month?!

However, for most of us, a spared toilet flush or two pales when compared to Pepsico’s Gatorade plant in southwest Atlanta, the metro area’s largest consumer. Monthly, the bottler uses 70.8 million gallons, or the equivalent of nearly half a million flushes per day – and that’s on on wasteful older tanks, not these “low-flow” deals. Even the statehouse would be challenged to produce that much shit. Coca-Cola, notorious for its theft of water in India, no longer produces much of is product in the area but still manages to bottle over 8 million gallons of slightly purified tap water at its plant in Marietta and ship it out as “Dasani.” Amazingly, Marietta has a water billing system that is actually regressive: after the first 2,000 gallons used per month, customers pay only one fifth the cost per gallon!

[Bottled water, one of capitalism’s great swindles, deserves an entry all its own. For now, I recommend “Despite the Hype, Bottled Water is Neither Cleaner nor Greener than Tap Water” from E Magazine, reprinted on]

students protest Ga. Power

However, even the sugar water conglomerates can’t compete with the main culprits gulping water from the Chattahoochee: Georgia Power’s nuclear and coal power plants. After being used as a coolant, water is returned to the river – but this all happens downstream from Atlanta. I’m no engineer, but simply noting that the returned water is warm demonstrates a hell of a lot of wasted energy. In any case, the direct correlation between energy use and demand for water reveals the culpability of even more large industries.

Revolutionary socialists have plenty of understanding of a market-based economy tendency to produce crises: economic depression, inflation, wars of conquest and imperial competition. The idea of eco-socialism, which Solidarity explored at its 2007 summer school, added the specter of ecological disaster to the list. Clearly Atlanta is an ecological disaster in the making – I’ve just listed some of the more sensational water-related symptoms. And sure, much of the crisis can be subdued with even simple reforms to the market (for example, legislation that demands major industries take concrete steps to curb use, penalizing water misuse and requiring the installation of water-saving devices.) However, we also have to raise consciousness around the incompatibility of a system based on unlimited growth with a planet that has absolutely finite resources.

For those of us who consider the process of democratic, “from below” social transformation equally important as progressive change (which is often achieved through back-room deals that don’t fundamentally challenge the uneven distribution of decision making power in society), another question is raised. How can we bring an ecosocialist agenda into the activist work we already do? On a programmatic level, it seems easy. For example, ignoring the social backwardness in many building trades unions, those organizations could advocate environmentally sustainable construction. Infrastructure improvements practically require massive public works employment (the city of Atlanta had to abandoned a disastrous experiment with privatizing the waterworks a couple years ago after United Water totally screwed up the system.)

But on a day-to-day level, I’m at a loss. Bottling plant workers for water conservation? Power plant engineers for solar energy? Teamsters against climate change? Almost ten years after “turtles and Teamsters” were united on the streets of Seattle, that unity is as urgent as ever…

For more on the water crisis, read the Atlanta Water Shortage Blog