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Chapter Three: A Drinking Problem

From the window of the airliner approaching Atlanta's international airport in the summer of 2007, Lake Lanier was a stunning sight. With its 38,000 acres of sparkling blue water and its 700 miles of serpentine shore, it was always impressive. But what dropped my jaw that day was the immense, bathtub-ring stain of brown mud flats, hundreds of feet wide, between the vegetation marking the normal shoreline and the present edge of the water. The bleak expanse was studded with forlorn stretches of stranded docks, piers and swimming platforms, sitting high and dry on hard ground.

Lake Lanier is man-made (as are most lakes in the southern U.S.), sprawling behind a dam erected in 1956 on the Chattahoochee River about 35 miles northwest of, and upstream from, Atlanta. It was built to protect the city from floods, and to provide it with hydroelectric power. But in the ensuing four decades the population of the metro area tripled – it was 1.5 million in 1960 and passed five million in 2004. In the 1990s, Atlanta was among the fastest-growing cities in the world, adding a million new inhabitants every ten years after 1990, and early in the new millennium became the fastest-growing city in the United States. This growth occurred despite the fact that Atlanta is located nowhere near a major river or other source of water. Unlike most other major centers of commerce and population, the city did not begin as a port, but as a railroad town. And the fuse leading to its explosive growth was the building of its international airport in the 1950s. Largely because of its role as a communications hub, Atlanta is home base to more international corporations than any other American city except New York and Houston.

The only reason that Atlanta was able to grow without restraint was Lake Lanier. And in 2007, with the growth continuing unabated, Lake Lanier was giving out. Not long after I viewed it from the air it reached an all-time record low water level, more than 20 feet below normal. The entire Atlanta metro area was put on notice that it was within 90 days of running out of water. Carol Couch, the director of the Environmental Protection Division in Georgia, told ABC News, "Without any intervention, we are likely to run out of water in three months."

Imagine five million people without water. It would be a disaster of Biblical proportions that would bring the region, if not the entire country, to its knees. The city responded by restricting the watering of lawns. It asked whether businesses in Atlanta would mind doing their best to reduce water use by 10%. But its counties continued to ignore a water conservation plan devised in 2003 by the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District that involved fixing leaks and charging more for high water consumption. The only thing that Atlanta insisted on, 90 days from disaster, was less watering of lawns.