View of water needs to change

Published 6:29 am Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The way we think of water needs to change if Georgia is to overcome its dwindling supply and ultimately end its bickering with its neighbors, said the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s opening of a three-day conference on water being held at Bainbridge College’s Kirbo Center.

Robert Glennon, a Morris K. Udall professor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona who recently wrote a book titled Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It, told conference participants that the country’s water woes will get worse before they get better because we are slow to change our ways, and because water is an overlooked resource.

“Water is crucial to the health of the American economy,” Glennon said. “Water lubricates the American economy just as much as oil.”

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He said water—a finite resource—should be valued just as much as other commodities such as oil, and that Georgia’s recent experience with drought and a federal judge’s ruling against the state’s position on withdrawals from Lake Lanier has brought about some good legislation.

He cited the General Assembly’s passage of the water stewardship bill this winter, which requires state agencies to develop water conservation incentives and to order new construction to install high-efficiency plumbing fixtures. It also requires the documentation of large permitted wells.

However, Glennon said one drawback is that private wells that could pump as much as 100,000 gallons per day are exempt from the permitting process.

He painted an analogy of the state’s water supply being a milkshake glass, and the water withdrawals being straws. He said the potential is there for unlimited straws in the milkshake glass.

Quoting another scientist at the conference, Glennon said that Georgia’s most recent drought in 2008 is no different than previous droughts except for the fact that Georgia’s growth rate plays a larger factor.

“The elephant in the room on every environmental issue is population growth,” Glennon said.

He said the state should be commended for taking those simple steps, but he was surprised at how timidly Gov. Sonny Perdue and other state leaders responded to the crisis.

“Georgia has not suffered that scarcity yet,” Glennon said after his presentation of how Georgia responded to the 2008 drought in comparison to western states like California and Nevada, whom he said have seen “the edge” and are responding with more forethought in its water conservation measures.

For example, during a 25-year period beginning in 1980, 31 million acre feet of water were taken out of agriculture production in 12 western states and put into such development as home sites, yet farm income didn’t decline at all, he said. An acre foot of water is more than 325,000 gallons of water.

Glennon said the reason is that farmers became very good stewards of water resources.

If water was treated more like a valued commodity, agriculture interests would find ways to more wisely use water, he said. An example he gave is the move several local farms have done in installing low-flow drip irrigation attachments to their center pivot systems, instead of the high-volume spraying methods.

Glennon advocated that cities charge more for water and eliminate rate structures that charge less for more water consumed.

Another target was the toilet.

He quoted President Teddy Roosevelt, who said: “Civilized people should be able to dispose of sewage in a better way than by putting it in the drinking water.”

Glennon said 6 billion gallons a day—or 2 trillion gallons a year—of potable water is wasted by getting rid of our sewage. If citizens would rethink how they view water than perhaps a better way of treating our sewage would be used.

He also said there’s a disconnect with the nation’s energy policy and its water policy, citing the production of ethanol as an example. Glennon said it takes 4 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol, and that doesn’t include the amount of water needed to irrigate the corn used in ethanol.

“Someone isn’t thinking,” Glennon said.

Conference continues

The conference, organized by the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, continues Wednesday at 8 a.m.

The first session will be on biological and ecological effects of reservoirs. Beginning at 10:20 a.m., the next two sessions will be on the effects of river development on flows and water quality. Wednesday’s final session beginning at 3:40 p.m. will be on Lake Seminole.

These sessions are more technical in nature, but Thursday’s sessions will be less so, and they begin at 9 a.m. Thursday. Sessions Thursday will highlight the 20-year water war among Georgia, Alabama and Florida.