In Atlanta, a fight for precious water

The growing city of Atlanta, Georgia is not built near a source of water. It's a major problem that demonstrates a coming urban, environmental and economic crisis.

Most Americans agree that the southern city of Atlanta is enjoying a bit of a renaissance as of late, but a fight over a precious resource may restrain its growth.

The conflict: access to water. If you've ever seen Atlanta on a map, you'll notice that it's not built along a river like most major U.S. cities. In fact, with some 420,000 people, it's the largest city without this feature. (Why? It hails from the railroad era.)

The problem: Atlanta continues to grow, and its demand for water continues to rise. But there are few resources to be found in the region, and neighbors Alabama and Florida argue that diverting the area's already limited supply to Atlanta would cause environmental and economic damage.

Citigroup's Peter Orszag writes for Bloomberg:

Forty miles northeast, however, lies Lake Lanier, created in the 1950s when the Army Corps of Engineers built the Buford Dam. As chronicled in “The Big Thirst,” by Charles Fishman, Atlanta refused to finance the dam -- partly because, at the time, it wasn’t clear the city would ever need water from Lake Lanier. As Atlanta grew, its need for water from the lake became increasingly obvious.

In 1989, the Corps of Engineers recommended that 20 percent of the water used for hydropower be diverted to Atlanta’s water supply. And therein began a war known as the tri-state water dispute.

The conflict is not yet resolved in the least. Atlanta won temporary access to Lanier's resources, but with a deadline to come to an agreement or find an alternative source. (There is none.) And so the fight wages on.

"Atlanta is living up to its reputation as a city of the future," Orszag writes, because it's not alone. Cities want water. They need water: to drink, to wash, to power the factories that drive their economic engines. For cities, water is at least as important as oil, serving as the fuel that enables further growth.

Orszag's answer? Address the pricing problem, with the hope that market forces will act as a deterrent for foolish development. "Prices that reflected usage would not only raise more money for addressing emerging water issues but also help raise everyone's awareness of them," he writes.

But that still won't solve some of Atlanta's fundamental issues. Can it continue to grow without access to freshwater?

Atlanta’s Water War Is First in a Gathering Flood [Bloomberg]

Illustration: Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District

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