Fights over water. We’ve heard them: droughts causing concern about shortages. Cities versus farmers, versus environmental groups.
This is a different kind of story: about a water supplier that’s trying to share more.
The Fayette County Water System operates a handful of reservoirs in suburban Atlanta and supplies water to about 120,000 people, says Lee Pope, the director of the agency. It might seem strange that he really wants his customers to buy less water.
“A lot of people will say, ‘Hey, I want my grass to be green,’ and they’re way overwatering,” he says. “Which means we’re selling them more than they really need.”
He’s encouraging people to be more efficient, and maybe not water their lawns every day. And he’d like to create a water education center at one of the reservoirs the agency operates, to teach people more about saving water.
This is actually not weird in the world of water agencies these days. Conservation and efficiency are hot topics. In metro Atlanta, water agencies encourage people to use less water by billing them more, the more water they use. It’s like the opposite of a bulk discount, called conservation pricing.
‘Why Do We Want To Be Greedy?’
Here’s where what Fayette County is doing gets more unusual.
While Pope is encouraging his own customers to use water more carefully, he’s also sharing water: letting more of it flow downstream, out of the reservoirs.
“We’re asking, ‘Hey, what do we need to release to make sure we take care of our neighbors?’” he says.
Fayette County sits near the headwaters of a river. The way the water agency used to operate, it would keep all the water it was allowed to, which created problems downstream.
“Those creeks have been severely strained during drought years, and under past management, those creeks have run dry,” said Ben Emanuel, with the Atlanta office of the environmental group American Rivers.
When creeks run dry, it’s bad for the environment. And Fayette County sends water downstream to other places that need it, too.
“We still have plenty of water to meet the demands here. Why do we want to be greedy?” Pope said.
Why It’s Happening
The water issues in the Southeast haven’t grabbed headlines recently the way California’s have, but they’re here.
There have been a few big droughts. And Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been arguing about water for decades. Right now, Georgia and Florida are duking it out in the U.S. Supreme Court.
But here in Fayette County, Pope is working with Emanuel to make sure other people and the plants and the animals get what they need. He said he plans to ask Georgia regulators to change the county’s water permits, setting in stone its more generous water management approach.
A change in leadership at the water agency, bringing Pope in a few years ago, helped make this change happen. And Emanuel and other environmentalists had laid the groundwork before that, putting together a report on issues in this river basin and getting a group of water managers and water advocates together to talk.
Now, Pope is working with environmental groups to pay for studies to figure out the best way to manage the water. Delta Air Lines and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport are participating in an initiative to help fund those. Letting the water itself flow out of the reservoirs doesn’t really cost the water agency anything because of the way water rights work in the state.
“Fayette County’s really stepping up to be a leader in this area,” said environmental lawyer Laurie Fowler, the director of policy at the University of Georgia’s River Basin Center. “It’s really an example of sharing information and resources, looking together at the problem and figuring out what’s the best solution environmentally, most cost-effectively.”
Collaboration like this is rare.
“I think in many cases with water, we tend to fight over it, and there’s a lot of conflict related to it,” said Heather Cooley, the water program manager at the Pacific Institute, which is a water think tank based in California. “But there are opportunities for cooperation.”
Cooley said since water issues tend to be so local, this exact approach might not be easy to replicate in other places, but still, she hopes it could at least be a model for communities all over the country dealing with water scarcity or water quality problems.
“Even in areas that don’t yet realize they have a problem, given climate change, given continued growth, it’s very likely that they will be facing something in the future,” she said.
Pope said when he talks with other people in the industry about what he’s doing here, they do sometimes ask him why he’d release more water than he’s required to.
He said his answer is because it’s the right thing to do.