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Water Warnings from Atlanta

Southern cities and suburbs are used to drought restrictions in the summer, watering the lawn only certain days of the week every year. But what if the rules were year round and also applied to indoor water use too? Atlantans may soon have such a situation in 2012. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the Atlanta metro cannot use Lake Lanier as a drinking water source. The decision states that because the man-made lake was built solely to aid flood control, hydropower generation, and navigation, Atlanta needs congressional authorization for water withdrawal.

This latest episode in the water wars between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida does not look promising for one of the fastest growing metros in the country. Beyond the legal aspects, the dispute has long been framed as an urban-rural fight. Lake Lanier supplies three quarters of metro Atlanta’s water needs. Alabama and Florida are downstream on the Chattahoochee River, which feeds Lake Lanier. They use the river’s water to support farms, fisheries, and smaller cities.

Water, like many other metropolitan challenges, pays no attention to jurisdictional lines. Atlanta’s situation highlights the need for regional responses to similar challenges nationwide--better water management, water pricing, and more regional water compacts. While many pay water rates, it’s generally a charge for the service but not for the water itself. No price means overconsumption. In the end, the choice between no water and having to pay for it is a straightforward one. How to get there, of course, is more complex.