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Missing the Point

Lake Lanier in GeorgiaThis post originally appeared on Smarter Energy.

Georgia has just declared a state of emergency. The reason? Water, or more accurately, a lack thereof. The state’s governor, Sonny Perdue, issued the order this past Saturday and is hoping to receive federal help in alleviating the crisis.

Why is Perdue requesting government help? Because he is blaming the problem on federal bureaucracy. Back in the 1980s, the state reached an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service to release 5,000 feet of water per second from Lake Lanier (the main reservoir for Atlanta and north Georgia) to the Chattahoochee River. This extra water provides hydroelectricity for Florida power plants and for endangered river species including mussels and sturgeon. Perdue is blaming these bureaucratic requirements for North Georgia’s current predicament and wants to be freed from the regulations, labeling them as “silly rules.”

Perdue’s analysis is misleading and, as is common in politics, misses the fundamental point. Blaming bureaucracy is a convenient political strategy that identifies a scapegoat rather than addressing difficult underlying issues.

The big story here is the relationship between natural resources and regional growth. Water, as well illustrated by this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine article, is emerging as a great limiting factor across the United States and the rest of the world. Since 1980, the population of Atlanta’s metropolitan area has doubled, dramatically increasing the demand for water. At the same time, almost nothing has been done to expand the water supply. Unchecked urban development without a plan for sustainable water usage is what has turned the current drought into a state of emergency, not the water needs of a few fish and mussels.

This story is particularly important since it is not isolated to Georgia. Urban development has proceeded throughout the entire United States over the last half-century with relatively little consideration for sustainable development. This can be seen most clearly in the case of the southwest, where cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas import water from hundreds of miles away for golf courses and industrial enterprises. However, the current crisis in Georgia reveals that this is a much more widely spread phenomenon.

We cannot continue building unsustainable cities and expect to avoid resource crises. We must require new urban developments to be sustainable and create plans for retrofitting our existing infrastructure. Only then can we address the underlying issues.

However, a solution cannot emerge until we ask the right questions. Blaming Georgia’s water supply on federal bureaucracy is not only wrong, it prevents the type of dialogue that would be necessary for a solution. Sonny Perdue has missed the point. Let’s not make the same mistake.

Blog Postscript

The differing perspectives on the drought have been replicated in various news forums. Compare the news coverage at CNN.com, CBS News, and the New York Times. Only the third article presents a critical perspective on the issues.

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