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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 November 2007, 14:01 GMT
Is Atlanta at risk of running dry?
By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Atlanta

Mud exposed by Lake Lanier's shrinking waters
Georgia has had only half its usual amount of rain this year
The first thing you notice about Atlanta's drought is that it doesn't look much like one.

The Chattahoochee River is flowing freely and, while the trees are dappled with autumnal reds and browns, there is no shortage of greenery in Georgia's state capital.

The hotels - at least, the ones where I stayed - do not appear to have any special water restrictions.

But, after a year in which only 20 inches (50cm) of rain has fallen - half the usual amount - the south-eastern state of Georgia is in a state of emergency.

Outdoor watering is banned and phone lines have been set up, where people can report on neighbours who have been breaking the rules.

In the city's affluent suburbs, the sound of wells being drilled in back gardens is not uncommon.

Travel north to Lake Lanier, and the situation becomes clearer.

Along the edge of the main reservoir servicing Atlanta, stranded boats and a red clay shoreline offer visible signs of the receding waters.

At one point, you can even see the stands of a race track, which was among the buildings flooded when the lake was created in the 1950s.

'Unbridled development'

For the people living on the shore - such as Mel White - the reason for the problem is clear.

Atlanta skyline (file picture)
Some people say Atlanta's rapid growth has depleted resources

"Development is the big problem in this part of the country," he told me, when I met a group of concerned families from the Lake Lanier Association.

"We've unbridled development. There's no thought being given to infrastructure and water now that we're in a severe drought... these things are not being thought about when they approve building permits. It can't go on like this forever."

Lake Lanier may be shrinking, but, driving around town, there is no sign - to the casual observer, at least - that the pace of development is contracting.

And that is something, which Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin is - in any case - reluctant to endorse.

For her, it is not about slowing down development, but speeding up measures to conserve water.

We have demonstrated in a short period of time that we can use much less water within the city system than we used when the population was much smaller
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin

"Our population has increased by 9%. And our water withdrawal has decreased by 5% in the past five years," she told me, wearing one of her large, trademark flowers (artificial, I assume) on her lapel.

"It means we're repairing our pipes, using conservation techniques and new technology, and [doing] some of those repairs that should have taken place 60 years ago.

"But this billion-dollar programme is a demonstration of what the city of Atlanta is willing to do in order to be not just a safe city, but also a healthy and a growing city.

"We have demonstrated in a short period of time that we can use much less water within the city system than we used when the population was much smaller... So it can be done.

"Clearly all of us in the region need to be able to demonstrate the same thing, and get better and better at that."

State battle

Her reference to "all of us in the region" is pertinent.

The effects of the drought have been compounded by a nearly two-decade-long battle between Georgia, Alabama and Florida that has seen the three states jostling for access to water from Lake Lanier - and leaders accusing one another of dragging their feet in reacting to the water shortage.

Boat docks left stranded by the receding waters of Lake Lanier
Lake Lanier's receding waters have left boat docks stranded

One thing uniting them, though, has been criticism of the federal authorities, especially the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Two years after the Corps was blamed for failing to stop water entering New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina, it is now accused of failing to keep enough water inside Lake Lanier; by favouring endangered mussels and sturgeon over human beings.

The charge is something that the Corps's Jonathan Davis denies.

"The Corps of Engineers that I've worked for for over 30 years is a group of dedicated people," he says. "We're not just a federal agency, we're people like everyone else.

"I don't just work here, I live here. My wife, my family life depend on the water resources here. So I bring that perspective as well. And I think that we'll get to a solution and we'll come out right."

Jobs lost

For some businesses, that optimism already sounds misplaced. At Premier Growers nursery, brothers Randy and Lewis Sharpe glumly survey a greenhouse, full of beautiful purple and yellow pansies.

Mary and Sonny Perdue during a prayer for rain in Georgia
Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue has led a prayer service for rain

Their workers are picking the flowers, but immediately throwing them in trucks and dumping them, because no-one is buying them.

An estimated 14,000 jobs have gone in Georgia's landscaping business because of the drought.

It is, says Lewis Sharpe, "a depressing outlook" and one that could lead to Atlanta losing its characteristic beauty.

"North Georgia is a mecca for annual colour," he explains.

"Our annual colour is equivalent to what they do in England in terms of their English gardens. And it would be a sad day to go to England and not see an English garden."

We're going to have to make some much more dramatic conservation
David Stooksbury
Georgia climatologist

Having declared a state of emergency, Georgia's Governor Sonny Perdue even organised an official multi-faith service this month to pray for rain.

But, according to state climatologist David Stooksbury, even with divine intervention, the long term forecast is not so good.

He told me: "The concern is right now is that we have entered a La Nina climate pattern. Historically, that has meant a warm, dry winter - beautiful golf weather, but terrible if what you need is rain to charge the system.

"So there is a good possibility that we will not receive enough rain to recharge the hydrological system to get us through next summer."

And what happens then, I asked him?

He paused. "We're going to have to make some much more dramatic conservation. Going from annoyance, to actual change of lifestyle."

Jamie Coomarasamy's report on Atlanta running dry can be heard on the One Planet programme on BBC World Service on Thursday

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