I think the story of Atlanta and Lake Lanier, as told recounted by Fishman, is especially instructive. Lake Lanier on the Chatahoochee River is the source of 75 percent of the water used by Atlanta, 5 million gallons a day. A drought in 2007-2008 brought the level of the lake dangerously low, prompting downstream states to sue over the amount of water Atlanta was taking. The federal court declared that Atlanta had been illegally receiving water from the lake and had to find another source. Atlanta has a lot of resources, barely tapped conservation efforts, reuse, and alternative supplies, but with a lack of political will, leadership, and vision, it leaders threw up their hands in impotent defiance of the court and whined they must have Lake Lanier water. When the lake was built, Atlanta passed on paying for a piece of it thinking it would never be needed, and now they think they can’t live without it.
Part of the point Fishman makes it that water crises are more often than not political crises. There is a lack of political will and sense of necessity, even though the problems can be plain and the solutions within reach. The Big Thirst includes examples from around the world (the United States, India, and especially Australia) where people are facing water problems. Happily, many of them have taken a more realistic and reasonable approach than Atlanta.
Fishman is going for something deeper, though. Our political and economic stumbling in the area of water management stems for our cultural relationship with water. It is obviously necessary for life. We also consider it beautiful, it is part of our landscape, and in some places it has important religious significance. Even so, we have difficulty understanding the value of water, comparing one use to another, assigning responsibility for its distribution and quality, acknowledging the infrastructure needed to have water when and where it is needed. It the West, where for the last century we have enjoyed incredible access to abundant water, we hardly ever think about water unless we have some professional connection to it.
We can’t continue to be mindless of water. The systems of water abundance we built in the last century aren’t sustainable without major ongoing investment. In light of climate change, they may be altogether unsustainable. Even without climate change, much of our water policy dates to a time of unusual water abundance.
Fishman encourages water mindfulness. We need to reconnect to water. In part, this reconnecting means understanding what it means to have water in our homes and in our streams. It is also connecting to how critical water is to food, energy, commerce, health, and almost every aspect of life. Our decisions about water need to be rooted in reality.
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I’ve also written about Atlanta and Lake Lanier at Infrastructure Watch:
Fishman, Charles. The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. New York: Free Press, 2011.