As the World Burns
Resource Wars in the Homeland
"Resource wars" are things that happen elsewhere. We don't usually think of our country as water poor or imagine that "resource wars" might be applied as a description to various state and local governments in the Southwest, Southeast, or upper Midwest now fighting tooth and nail for previously shared water. And yet, "war" may not be a bad metaphor for what's on the horizon. According to the National Climate Data Center, federal officials have declared 43 percent of the contiguous US to be in "moderate to extreme drought." Already, Sonny Perdue of Georgia is embroiled in an ever more bitter conflict--a "water war," as the headlines say--with the governors of Florida and Alabama, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, over the flow of water into and out of the Atlanta area.
He's hardly alone. After all, the Southwest is in the grips of what, according to Davis, some climatologists are terming a "'mega-drought,' even the 'worst in 500 years.' " More shockingly, he writes, such conditions may actually represent the region's new "normal weather." The upper Midwest is also in rainfall-shortage mode, with water levels at all the Great Lakes dropping unnervingly. The water level of Lake Superior, for instance, has fallen to the "lowest point on record for this time of year." (Notice, by the way, how many "records" are being set nationally and globally in these drought years; how many places are already beginning to push beyond history, which means beyond any reference point we have.)
And then there's the Southeast, 26 percent of which, according to the National Weather Service, is in a state of "exceptional" drought, its most extreme category, and 78 percent of which is "drought-affected." We're talking here about a region normally considered rich in water resources setting a bevy of records for dryness. It has been the driest year on record for North Carolina and Tennessee, for instance, while eighteen months of blue skies have led Georgia to break every historical record, whether measured by "the percentage of moisture in the soil, the flow rate of rivers, [or] inches of rain."
Atlanta is hardly the only city or town in the region with a dwindling water supply. According to David Bracken of Raleigh's News & Observer, "17 North Carolina water systems, including Raleigh and Durham, have 100 or fewer days of water supply remaining before they reach the dregs." Rock Spring, South Carolina, "has been without water for a month. Farmers are hauling water by pickup truck to keep their cattle alive." The same is true for the tiny town of Orme, Tennessee, where the mayor turns on the water for only three hours a day.
And then, there's Atlanta, its metropolitan area "watered" mainly by a 1950s man-made reservoir, Lake Lanier, which, in dramatic photos, is turning into baked mud. Already with a population of five million and known for its uncontrolled growth (as well as lack of water planning), the city is expected to house another two million inhabitants by 2030. And yet, depending on which article you read, Atlanta will essentially run out of water by New Year's eve, in eighty days, in 120 days, or, according to the Army Corps of Engineers-- which seems to find this reassuring--in 375 days, if the drought continues (as it may well do).
Okay, so let's try again:
Across the region, fountains sit "bone dry"; in small towns, "full-soak" baptisms have been stopped; car washes and laundromats are cutting hours or shutting down. Golf courses have resorted to watering only tees and greens. Campfires, stoves, and grills are banned in some national parks. The boats have left Lake Lanier and the metal detectors have arrived. This is the verdant Southeastern United States, which, thanks in part to a developing La Niña effect in the Pacific Ocean, now faces the likelihood of a drier than ever winter. And, to put this in context, keep in mind that 2007 "to date has been the warmest on record for land [and]... the seventh warmest year so far over the oceans, working out to the fourth warmest overall worldwide." Oh, and up in the Arctic sea, the ice pack reached its lowest level this September since satellite measurements were begun in 1979.