Atlanta's Drying Lesson: Building Community from Crisis
In the first weeks of October this year, Atlanta residents were inundated with press reports warning that their municipal water supply had dropped to critical levels. The crippling drought that had set in over the sweltering summer months was taking its toll on Lake Lanier, the city’s primary source of drinking water, and worried officials were sounding the alarm. Carol Couch, head of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, declared a level four “exceptional” drought for much of north Georgia, banning most outdoor watering and bringing the crisis to the attention of metro Atlanta’s more than 5 million citizens. News of the water shortage quickly spread across the country, as Atlanta-based CNN and other national media picked up the story, broadcasting dramatic photos of the 38,000-acre reservoir’s receding waterline and muddy, debris-strewn shores.
Yet, for all the clamor and urgency of the headlines, life goes on as usual for most Atlantans. Commuters regularly clog the epic sixteen-lane “Downtown Connector” each morning and afternoon, fighting their way between city jobs and homes in far-flung suburbs. Visitors continue to mob the observation tanks at the Georgia Aquarium, touted as the largest in the world when it opened two years ago. Passenger jets crisscross the skies above the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International, serving some 240,000 travelers daily.
These days, arriving fliers might happen to catch a glimpse of a desiccated pond just before touching down. Located just twenty miles from the tarmac, the shriveled George H. Sparks Reservoir, chief water supply to the city of East Point, bears testament to the severity of the “hundred-year” drought gripping the southeast.
In fact, such happenstance direct encounters are the only connection most Atlanta residents might make with the looming water crisis. While landscaping outfits and nursery owners have felt the pinch of conservation measures, clean, cheap water still gushes freely from the taps. It’s easy to understand the complacency that presides, even as the state’s precious reservoirs dwindle. After all, what is a “drought,” really, but a long stretch of sunny days? If this is what a disaster looks like, life is indeed easy. But like many of the sneaky environmental catastrophes currently brewing on the planet, the record-breaking dry weather across the southeast poses a hidden and growing threat for the future. As Georgia’s state climatologist David Stooksbury puts it, a drought is like the Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters – it gets “no respect” until things get serious.
This is not to say that the local media is ignoring the story. In contrast to the carefree vibe on the street, a series of doom-and-gloom scoops on the mounting crisis have cropped up in recent months throughout the city’s newsrooms. To those inclined to seek out such “depressing” information, a cursory web search will dredge up several ominous-looking news sites dedicated to Georgia drought coverage. One of the most popular statistics across these various channels is a calculation of days remaining until a water level of 1,035 feet AMSL (Above Mean Sea Level) is reached at Lanier. This magic number arises when the last drops of conservation pool water are released into the Chattahoochee River through Buford Dam. Beneath this, reports have suggested, lies a hundred or so feet of difficult-to-access, bacteria-laden water never intended for human consumption – otherwise known as the "dead pool."
Early on, the media seized on this figure as an apt device to gauge the urgency of the crisis. Dead pool “countdown clocks” popped up on numerous websites, ticking off the days of drinking water remaining for the fastest growing metro area in the US. Yet from source to source, the numbers varied significantly based on the calculation formula used, adding an air of confusion to the tense situation. What would seem the most official estimate, provided by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) who manage the federal lake, jumped wildly from 375 to 79 over a single week in November. To anyone attempting to follow this situation, these conflicting, erratic figures are frustrating at best. At worst, they suggest the total incomprehension and incompetence of the folks in charge – a troubling possibility in post-Katrina America.
Regardless of the actual dead pool date, it remains entirely unclear what it would mean for Atlanta if this critical juncture were eventually reached. Neither the city or state government, nor the ACE, have been willing to elaborate plans for a worst-case scenario. Atlanta running out of water, they allege, is too unlikely an event to warrant serious discussion. Such blithe shrug-offs from Georgia officials stand in odd contrast to the recent grandstanding by Governor Sonny Perdue, who made headlines with a tent-revival prayer service on the Capitol steps to petition the Lord for stormy weather. (It rained a little the next day, as predicted in forecasts a week out.) Surely things must be dire when government officials are invoking God to bail them out. If Atlanta faces emergency conditions, as Governor Perdue declared in late October, how can there be no contingency plan? What is going on here? Is anyone minding the store?
Enter Mickey Mellen, a 31-year-old webmaster at a church in suburban Marietta, Georgia. Like many metro Atlantans, Mellen started paying close attention to news reports in mid-October about the “historic” drought that threatened the city’s water supply. Turning (of course) to the Internet, he did some searches to satisfy his curiosity about the developing crisis. Soon, he had more questions than answers. “People kept saying we needed rain,” recalls Mellen. “OK, that’s great. But what would an inch of rain mean? The answer didn’t exist.”
Amid conflicted politicians and inconsistent data, there was no central source of dependable information on the drought. Mellen quickly got to work. “I already had my own server,” he says, “so I figured, what the heck, I’ll start a blog about this and try to consolidate everything.” Atlantawatershortage.com (or AWS, for short) launched on October 16th with an inaugural entry that called out an Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter for some sloppy math in a story flaunting the city’s conservation efforts. A series of posts the following day contrasted differing weather reports, shared water-saving tips from Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, and attempted to crack the science behind Lanier’s declining level.
Before long, the site began attracting some loyal visitors. Curious, concerned, and sometimes quarrelsome readers converged on the blog, offering their own bits of expertise and speculation. A posting that fell, appropriately, on Halloween asked the frightening question on everyone’s mind: “How much water is really left in Lanier?” Twenty-five comments explored various angles of the problem, yet no real answers emerged. Undaunted, Mellen posed it again a few days later, inviting those “mathematically-inclined” to give it a go. A couple of industrious posters bearing the usernames “wspurlock” and “rkolter” accepted the challenge, hashing out the data and swapping URLs in the newly-added forums. A St. Louis-based comuputer scientist and self-professed "geek at heart," rkolter developed a line graph charting the fill-rate of Lake Lanier over time, drawing from years of elevation data maintained by the Corps. This model could then be used to make predictions on how quickly Lanier will drain. At last, concerned citizens had a timeline they could reference that was accountable to hard numbers. Mellen devoted a blog post to the chart, for all to see.
As the water continued to flow from Lake Lanier, visitors to atlantawatershortage.com swelled to an average of 1,500 a day. "The traffic's been astounding, to me at least," says Mellen, "with just a default WordPress template and a schmoe that knows nothing, talkin' about water." Yet for a bunch of amateur hydrologists, the crowd at AWS was starting to amass some impressive data. Mellen began receiving solicitations for interviews, including a request from a newspaper based in Japan. Local journalists took notice as well, frequenting the site to respond to concerns about their reporting.
To keep track of all the accumulating information, Mellen set up a wiki, open-source style for public management. Rkolter took charge of a “Predictions” page, tracking all of the disparate dead pool countdowns with regular updates against the changing estimates of his own model. A glossary of terminology was included, as well as a primer on the 50-year history of the man-made lake at the heart of the controversy. All the while, the newsy blurbs on the main page expanded in scope to reflect a growing awareness of water scarcity as a complex global issue. Readers from drought-ravaged Australia and Las Vegas shared conservation tips with beleaguered Georgians. Discussions of sustainability and alternative energy cropped up in debates over water allocation between states, underscoring the contentious role this resource is sure to play in the years to come.
Then came a truly watershed moment. A poster called “John” confirmed some readers' suspicions that the dreaded dead pool might not mean the sudden end of Atlanta’s water supply, after all. Paraphrasing a telephone conversation with Michael Lapina, an Army Corps of Engineers official at Lanier’s Buford Dam, John reported that the water releases always flow out from a gate at 919 AMSL – from the bottom of the dead pool. Previously, the consensus opinion of the media (and the AWS community) rested on a belief that dead pool water would require special treatment and equipment to bring it to Atlanta’s taps. Instead, they were now informed, if lake levels drop below the magic 1,035 elevation, only the capacity to generate electricity will be disrupted, due to insufficient "head pressure" on the turbines; Atlanta will still have more than 100 feet of easily obtainable drinking water remaining in the reservoir.
So, why all the dire countdowns? And what about all the reports equating the dead pool with filthy, inaccessible water? There must be some misunderstanding. “Well, I spoke with someone from the army corps,” asserts John, “and he told me the media are idiots. I agree with him.”
Despite the fact that another hundred feet of available water is assuredly great news, it came with a tinge of exasperation. A post by rkolter summed up the mood succinctly: “Just when we think we have an answer, something else confusing comes along. *sigh*”
After checking the details with Lapina, Mellen added a humble retraction to his blog. “So maybe the dead pool isn’t so bad,” read the title, followed by a careful explanation of the new information. Yet even bolstered by this surplus of water, Mellen insists, Atlanta still faces an uncertain future: “With a dry winter predicted, things could get really ugly by spring.”
The dead pool revelation (if indeed accurate) is not so much a crisis averted, but protracted; Atlanta's profligacy and Lanier's federally-mandated water releases continue at unsustainable rates, and the drought is projected to deepen into next summer. In the meantime, readers of atlantawatershortage.com will undoubtedly maintain their vigilance against an indifferent public and a misinformed press – and in the stark absence of guidance from civic leaders. Out of the dregs of a dying lake, a far more pressing emergency has surfaced: a crisis of faith in the ability of our hallowed institutions to inform, protect, and serve the people.
It is painfully clear, in these hectic times, that strong communities must rise up and take control of their own knowledge and security. As new crises emerge and crumbling systems buckle under their weight, it will be increasingly up to these rooted, dynamic collectives to assume primacy over the failures of the past. With hope, one day soon the rains will return and wash it all away.
Image credit (teaser): "Lake bed" by digitalens, used under Creative Commons license.
Image credit: "No boats" by mjn9, used under Creative Commons license.