Before wells run dry

In summer 2000, farmers were losing crops, strict outdoor watering bans were in effect, and many businesses – landscapers, textile manufacturers, golf courses, and poultry processors, to name a few – had to shut down, drop shifts or take other measures to save water.

Statewide, Georgia was drying up.

“Until the recent drought, Georgia had no problem ensuring more than enough water for everyone,” said Mel Garber, UGA Cooperative Extension director of strategic initiatives. “This was the first time we faced the limits of that natural resource. Now we have to find a way to manage it.”

During the past two decades Georgia has had two droughts of record – in the late 80s and from 1998 to 2002 – plus a 100-year and 500-year flood. These extremes – drought and flood – affect the state’s ability to address water issues, said Jim Kundell, director of the environmental policy program at UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government and science advisor to the Georgia General Assembly.

“There’s also a mismatch between where the water is most plentiful and where the people are most plentiful,” Kundell said. “We have limited surface storage and less ground water in the piedmont where most of the people are located.”

UGA faculty and staff from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government and the Fanning Institute are working with state agencies to develop the first statewide plan for managing Georgia’s water resources.

“In 2000, we did a report on water planning and why the state needs a comprehensive statewide water plan,” Kundell said. “We surveyed all 50 states to find out what they were doing in the area of water planning. At that time, eight states had comprehensive plans and we analyzed them to see what we could glean that would help Georgia develop a comprehensive plan.”

About that time, people around the state began to recognize that demands for water were beginning to outstrip the capacity to manage it. Water constraints were becoming clear in coastal areas, metro Atlanta and the Flint River basin. Then came the drought.

These factors led the 2004 Georgia General Assembly to pass legislation calling for a comprehensive statewide water plan. The bill created a Water Council to oversee the plan and assigned the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) with the responsibility for drafting a policy that ensures the state’s water needs are met now and in the future.

Kundell’s team has been providing EPD with research assistance on policy options that could help Georgia live within its water budget.

The team reviewed laws, regulations, policies, programs and other information in Georgia and other states and reported their findings to EPD in a series of reports exploring topics such as water conservation, water reuse, septic tanks, water transfer from one basin to another, reservoirs, aquifer management, and non-point source pollution.

EPD has formed seven basin advisory committees and a statewide advisory committee to give advice on the state’s options, refine them, make them more feasible, and ensure that they adequately reflect Georgia’s regional diversity in terms of geology, hydrology and economy.

“Looking forward over the next 10 to 20 years, water management may be the defining issue for economic development in the state,” Garber said.