Metro Atlanta still needs to focus on its water resources and conservation

By Saba Long

Midway through his lecture, Charles Fishman paused to rest a package on top of his head — 24 packaged bottles of Publix branded bottled water. This, he said, represents the amount of water we use to flush a toilet.

Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water”, was in Atlanta Oct. 26 presenting a talk “Smart Water Solutions for Atlanta” on behalf of two groups — Smart Water Grid coalition and Georgia Water Wise Council.

Fishman’s talk provided anecdotes on water use failures and successes — both domestically and abroad.

In the United States, bottled water, a $21 billion industry, is thriving with sales topping one billion bottles — weekly. By comparison, water infrastructure spending hovers at $29 billion annually.

The overhaul of the City of Atlanta’s wastewater and water system is estimated to be a $4.1 billion infrastructure investment. Required by a 1999 federal consent decree based on combined sewer overflow violations, the investment in the system is being funded by a penny sales tax. The city already has one of the highest water rates in the country.

In his book, Fishman compares Atlanta and Las Vegas’ water woes, specifically Lake Lanier and Lake Mead.

“The real difference between Atlanta and Las Vegas is attitude…Indeed there is no real water leadership,” Fishman said. “Going back 50 years, water planning and water management in the area have consisted of wishful thinking, rain dances, and litigation.”

Currently, metropolitan Atlanta is making progress to adapt to smart water use with “low hanging fruit” solutions such as conservation prompted by education on the financial benefits of conserving water.

Even so, local and state governments are relying on businesses in particular to lead the charge in rethinking water use and it’s effect on both the community and the bottom line.

During the event’s panel discussion, Katie Kirkpatrick of the Metro Atlanta Chamber commented that due to the lack of political leadership on expensive yet necessary public infrastructure projects, the technology startup community must step in to provide better data, water management improvements to move the needle.

Douglas County is home to one of Google’s eight data centers scattered across the globe. Realizing the amount of energy and water needed to power the servers, the tech giant built its own water treatment plant to recycle wastewater from the county and use it to cool the systems.

The wastewater is cleaned once more before finding its way back to the Chattahoochee River. This model of good corporate citizenship and smart water use, coupled with education and incentives to modify consumer behavior, will put the region well down the path of becoming a leader in water efficiency.

When asked which municipality is leading on water treatment and usage, Fishman pointed to San Antonio. The city immediately equates water with recycling. The San Antonio Riverwalk, located in the center of the city, uses nearly 100 percent recycled water.

In the water sustainability world, thought leaders raise the argument that when dining out we trust the used silverware to be clean. Therefore, we should be comfortable with the notion of reclaiming water for potable or other uses.

Fishman noted Atlanta has plenty of water; officials need to think about its usage and plan accordingly. The question is where does this fall on the “causes to champion” list of our leaders at the state Capitol and the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Saba Long is a communications and political professional who lives in downtown Atlanta. She serves as the senior council aide and communications liaison for Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson. Most recently, Saba was the press secretary for MAVEN and Untie Atlanta -- the Metro Chamber’s education and advocacy campaigns in supportive of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. She has consulted with H.E.G. an analytics and evaluation firm where she lent strategic marketing and social media expertise to numerous political campaigns, including that of Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and the 2010 Clayton County transportation referendum. In 2009, Saba served as the deputy campaign manager for the campaign of City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Previously, Saba was a Junior Account Executive at iFusion Marketing, where she lent fractional marketing strategy to various ATDC technology startups operating out of the Georgia Tech incubator, ATDC. For the past two years, Saba has presented on online marketing and politics to the incoming fellows of the Atlanta chapter of the New Leaders Council.

9 replies
  1. scfranklin says:

    Saba,
    Great topic for public debate. The city of Atlanta’s Clean Water Plan developed by then Commissioner of Watershed Management Jack Ravan and his leadership team including John Griffin and Rob Hunter included investment in upgrades and replacement of elements of the drinking water distribution system, separating the combined sewers, planning and implementing a storm water management system,  upgradingand replacing the sanitary sewer system and implementing aggressive water conservation plans. Though the post doesn’t mention it the state of Georgia plays a key role in regional and state water planning. There were times during my term in office the state prohibited the city from implementing water conservation measures in spite of the obvious need to manage the region’s water usage and supply. Much is made in recent articles about the cost of water system  management and upgrades (and cost to the customers) and little is mentioned about the role of cost in managing current  usage or the decades of limited or lack of investment in water infrastructure. It is impossible to undue or reverse the lack of investment for 50 years in the infrastructure without increasing the cost to current customers. Should current state and local leaders neglect investment in water infrastructure for the next decade or so we are destined to repeat the mistakes of our forebearers. This is really a case of pay now or pay a lot more later if the current leaders kick the can down the road.Report

    Reply
  2. SethRG says:

    Why are stories on Georgia and Atlanta’s severe water issues nearly always void of any acknowledgement of Georgia’s largest single source of water consumption: Georgia Power’s coal and nuclear facilities?  The “low-hanging fruit” solutions aren’t consumer conservation- they are renewable energy production that put Georgians to work replacing big water-guzzlers with energy efficiency and renewable energy.  For every gallon of water consumed in a home, three are consumed to generate the electricity powering that home.Report

    Reply
    • Burroughston Broch says:

      SethRG, you should get your facts straight.
       
      Georgia Power uses non-potable (untreated) water from rivers for cooling their coal-fired and nuclear-fired power plants. If there are no cooling towers, the water withdrawn from the river is returned to the river – it is not consumed. If there are cooling towers, the water withdrawn from the river is evaporated.
       
      Google is using treated sewage to supply their cooling towers, where it is evaporated. It’s the same as what Georgia Power does, except Georgia Power uses river water instead of sewage..Report

      Reply
  3. scfranklin says:

    It is precisely because most of us know so little about who uses what, when and how that we need more media coverage and public discourse. I didn’t attend this event but learned from others and other cities’ there was wide ranging debate about solutions.  To have made so much progress in metro Atlanta and City of Atlanta on the topic of water infrastructure it would be sad to see the lessons learned forgotten or ignored. We can’t afford to wait another 50 years to have a robust water plan for Georgia and metro Atlanta. With so much political talk about leaving a federal deficit to our children’s chidren you’d think learning from Atlanta’s and dismal history of investment for 50 years would be the first order of business in public policy discussions.Report

    Reply

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