Rarely has the level of a lake been subject to more scrutiny. With Atlanta and much of the southeastern U.S. in the midst of a severe 22-month drought, the levels in Lake Lanier, a man-made reservoir that is the main source of drinking water for five million people, is watched obsessively. After setting record lows throughout the fall, the ever-shrinking lake is now 5.5 m below normal. And that’s created a regional showdown over who gets its water.
The reservoir accounts for two-thirds of the storage in the Apalachicola-ChattahoocheeFlint river system, which ends up at the Gulf of Mexico. As the drought deepened and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the system’s water flow, adjusted levels to meet Atlanta’s demands, the parched downstream states went to court. Florida and Alabama argue that the new levels violate previous obligations, and that the reduced flow of water threatens power plants, endangered species of mussels and the fishing industry.
Though Washington got the three states to agree to craft a water-management plan, the squabbling has continued. Downstream states claim that Atlanta, long warned that its explosive population growth had outstripped the reservoir’s capacity, didn’t get serious about curbing its water consumption until after the Army corps announced last October that, with no action, the lake could be effectively empty within months. The poster boy for the area’s wasteful ways was estate owner Chris Carlos, who used more than two million litres of water in the previous month—100 times the national average. Though lake levels have stabilized lately through a combination of new conservation measures, lower flows from the lake, and a bit of rain, meteorologists forecast yet more hot, dry weather. M
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