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Friday, October 9, 2009

Water & the Mind


“All day I've faced the barren waste
Without the taste of water.....cool, water.
Ole Dan and I, with throats burned dry ,
and souls that cry
for water....cool, clear water.”
We need water to live. In the developed world, we take abundant water supply for granted. However, where I live the recent past demonstrated in all harshness that we are cradling ourselves in a false sense of security. Water is in fact in short supply. In contrast to the Southwestern states of the U.S., the Southeastern states look emerald green most of the year when you look down on the beautiful land of rolling mountains from an airplane. You would never believe that there is not enough water for this land!

However, severe drought struck this land two years ago. After several years of insufficient rainfall, hardly any came. The grass turned brown already in June, the hack berry trees dropped their leaves in August. Our willow dropped a ton of whip-like branches and is half dead today. Metropolitan Atlanta was much worse off. A major source of the city's potable water, Lake Lanier, reached historic low levels (Shaila Dewan and Brenda Goodman for The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2007, "New to Being Dry the South Struggles to Adapt"). Severe restrictions for the use of water were imposed.

Legal fights ensued between users in the region. The states of Florida, Alabama and Georgia, sharing the Chattahoochee River basin, began to quarrel about water rights with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Shaila Dewan for The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2009, "River Basin Fight Pits Atlanta Against Neighbors"). The Corps administers the river's flow. Georgia became so desperate that lawmakers briefly resurrected a 19th century border dispute with its neighbor Tennessee in a vain attempt to gain access to the Tennessee River (Shaila Dewan and Brenda Goodman for The New York Times, Feb. 22, 2008, "Georgia Claims a Sliver of the Tennessee River").

The state of Tennessee was not much better off (Adam Nossiter for The New York Times, Jul. 4, 2007, "Drought Saps the Southeast, and its Farmers"). Water had to be trucked in with fire engines for a number of communities where the wells were running dry. Entire counties declared water emergencies. On top of this calamity, deep cracks were discovered in the bedrock under several large dams the Tennessee Valley Authority had built in the wake of the Great Depression, e.g. Wolf Creek Dam (Ian Urbina and Bob Dreihaus for The New York Times, Mar. 4, 2007, "Fears for a Dam's Safety Put Tourist Area on Edge"). Water had to be released, leaving the intake pipes of a number of lakeside communities on dry ground. Obviously, improved water management was direly needed.

This year, by contrast, we saw record rainfall down here. Georgia and Tennessee experienced catastrophic flash floods (Robbie Brown and Liz Robbins for The New York Times, Sep. 24, 2009, "Georgians Grappling With Flood Damage"). Our house is built on an unfinished basement. In normal years, the dirt is dry for nine months. This year it never dried. The grass in the yard never turned brown. The hackberry trees have only begun to shed their leaves this month.

Unfortunately, this year's abundance of water could not be stored. The water levels behind the damaged dams had to be kept below capacity because of the repair work underway. The repairs are substantial, will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and will take several years to complete. Meanwhile, millions of gallons of precious water are flushed down the spill ways. For the first time, I saw all spill ways wide open at Percy Priest Dam. A truly majestic sight!

Clearly, we cannot afford to waste our most vital resource without paying a price. Tonight at 20 hours EDT, Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, will host a multi-media show from the International Space Station. The show entitled "Moving Stars and Earth for Water" will raise awareness to this simple, but important fact.

You may wish to tune in online here tonight:

Addenda
  • Guy is back!
  • On the weekend of May 2, 2010, a 500-year flood of the Cumberland River system in Tennessee overwhelmed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' ability of containing the rising waters below catastrophic levels. The Corps had to release water, flooding its own facilities downstream, to protect the integrity of its dams. Eleven lives were lost. More than 2000 families suffered flood damage to their homes. Nashville's downtown was underwater to an extent unseen in 80 years. One of the two water treatment plants that supply the city with drinking water was out of order for several weeks. The estimated economic losses in the metropolitan area top two billion dollars. The Tennessean devotes a continuously updated online report entitled "Nashville Flood" on the incident and its impact. The dam and levee system in the region is underfunded and has not seen large-scale upgrades since its inception. Obviously, improved water control is direly needed (08/05/10).
  • Southeastern cities manage their drinking water on shoe-string budgets. According to an Associated Press report with the title "New Orleans Issues Boil-Water Order" published online in The Wall Street Journal today, citizens of New Orleans are advised to boil their tap water before consumption this weekend, because mechanical failure forced a water treatment plant to shut down (11/20/10).

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