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Lake Guntersville in Alabama is a 69,000-acre reservoir located within a state park.
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Photo courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority.
The Appalachian Trail crosses the dam at Fontana Reservoir, on the Tennessee River in North Carolina. The boundaries of the lake encompass 238 miles of shoreline.
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Cara Ellen Modisett.
Drought conditions mean recreational reservoirs such as Lake Jocassee, in upstate South Carolina, drop well below their typical level.
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Lake Guntersville in Alabama is a 69,000-acre reservoir located within a state park.
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Roanoke Valley Skyline
The Roanoke Valley MSA in Virginia has a population of around 100,000. Carvins Cove Reservoir supplies water to the area.
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Cara Ellen Modisett
Oconee Nuclear Station
The Oconee Nuclear Station, on Lake Keowee in South Carolina, is operated by Duke Energy.
Recent cycles of drought and deluge have brought water to the forefront of regional environmental issues. Here’s a look at the state of H2O in Appalachia.
"Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." —W.H.Auden
Lake Guntersville in Alabama is a 69,000-acre reservoir located within a state park. Photo by Patty Tucker.
In late March 2009, some 400 people came to the campus of Warren Wilson College outside Asheville for the first annual Headwaters Gathering. Under skies sunny and stormy by turns as spring struggled to wrench the season away from winter, they heard from some of the country’s leading scientists, activists and writers about a different kind of change in the weather – global climate change. Their goal was to better understand the challenges that a warming planet poses for humans and the environment, especially in the southern mountains.
Tom Peterson, a research meteorologist with the National Climatic Data Center and a lead author of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, showed the group a series of complicated charts and graphs, then boiled his message down to this: “At current projections, Asheville would be as warm as Atlanta is now – not to mention what Atlanta would be.”
As the atmosphere warms and weather systems grow more erratic and intense, water that is available for human use is becoming one of the most pressing worldwide issues – even here in the humid South.
In recent years, water – either way too much, or way too little – has commanded headlines, been the topic of countless studies and reports, and weighed heavily on the minds of water resource managers throughout the Southeast. The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, with Katrina in the leading role, was by some accounts the most active in recorded history. Two years later, a record drought gripped much of the South. At the epicenter, the megalopolis of Atlanta watched its drinking water reservoir, Lake Lanier, rapidly recede, and even in the lush Blue Ridge, streams and wells were dangerously low.
Notwithstanding the category 4 and 5 hurricanes, it’s the growing overall scarcity of water in the South clean and plentiful enough for human use and to sustain aquatic ecosystems that is most troubling to experts.
“We can no longer count on having all the water we want, when we want it, where we want it,” says Gil Rogers, a senior attorney in the Atlanta office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We’re slowly waking up to that reality.”
Even before climate change took on crisis proportions, rising population growth and sprawling development patterns in the South over several decades had put the region’s water resources under tremendous stress.
The Roanoke Valley MSA in Virginia has a population of around 100,000. Carvins Cove Reservoir supplies water to the area. Photo by Paul Naret.
Population in the nine states covered by Blue Ridge Country grew 63 percent from 1960 to 2000. We’re expected to grow another 33 percent by 2030, with the number of people in Georgia and North Carolina increasing almost by half.
All of those people – all of us – expect to turn on the faucet and have clean water gushing out, for our showers, our lawns, our water glasses. So, demand has swelled, and will continue to rise.
Then there’s the question of how we are growing. Interestingly, those four decades were wetter than normal, according to National Weather Service records dating to the turn of the last century, which partly explains what could now could be seen as a reckless disregard for the natural limits of our water resources.
The six states of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama developed more land in the 1980s and ’90s than any other region – some 60,645,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Moreover, the rate of development outpaced population growth, as more highways opened up the landscape for human habitation, and suburbs sprawled into “exurbs.”
What this means is, even as we demand more water, we are shackling nature’s ability to provide it, killing the proverbial golden goose.
“The Blue Ridge region has been one of the fastest growing regions over the past generation, but people are loving it to death,” says David Feldman, an environmental researcher at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville from 1988 to 2007 and former director of the Southeast Water Policy Initiative, who now teaches at the University of California at Irvine
Growing Beyond our Means
Feldman says that in western North Carolina, for example, the growth of tourist resorts, golf courses, shopping districts, second-home communities, roads and other development have had enormous impacts on water supply.
First, mud from construction sites often winds up in streams and rivers, despite measures to control it. Sometimes the smaller branches of a watershed – considered the “first responders” of river systems because they filter out sediment and other pollution – are destroyed or diverted into culverts.
Then, year after year, as rain falls on the roads, roofs and other impervious surfaces, it runs off into waterways, carrying a potpourri of pollutants. The velocity of stormwater rushing off paved surfaces erodes the streambanks, pulling more mud into the water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified sediment as the most widespread pollutant in the nation’s rivers and streams. Too much mud in the water impairs stream ecology and destroys aquatic habitat, and adds to drinking water treatment costs.
In the mountains, where the primary source of drinking water is groundwater found relatively close to the surface (at 200 to 400 feet), Feldman says, sprawl development prevents rainfall from recharging the water table. “When you pave over surfaces, the water can’t percolate back down to aquifers. Instead it runs offs,” Feldman says.
The Energy Connection
The Appalachian Trail crosses the dam at Fontana Reservoir, on the Tennessee River in North Carolina. The boundaries of the lake encompass 238 miles of shoreline. Photo courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority.
Here’s another wrinkle in our water worries – energy use. Generating electricity is the biggest single use of water in the South. In the six-state region mentioned above, thermoelectric plants, including nuclear and coal-fired facilities, withdrew more than three times the amount of water from surface and groundwater sources in 2000 than public water utilities, agriculture, industry and domestic well water combined, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey. Much of that water is returned to streams relatively quickly, but it still has to be available to the power plants in sufficient amounts and at the right time to keep our computers, cash registers, coffee makers and pretty much everything else humming along.
Hydroelectric facilities – dams and reservoirs built for generating power – lose tremendous amounts of water to evaporation. In 1995, hydropower reservoirs in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee lost 34.5 gallons of water per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced – enough water to supply the city of Atlanta and its 16-county area for nearly six years, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. Because it’s warm down south, that’s almost twice the amount of water lost as the national average for hydropower dams.
As global temperatures rise, southerners will use more air conditioning, requiring more water to generate more electricity, yet reservoirs will be evaporating faster, aquifers shrinking, and streams may well be running lower than normal.
Faced with such a conundrum, the temptation for communities to hoard whatever water resources they can is understandable, almost. Over the last decade, cities and states have increasingly sought to expand reservoirs, build new ones, even to pipe water from one basin and transfer it, sometimes many miles away, to another. North and South Carolina are fighting over the Tarheel state’s plan to withdraw 10 million gallons a day each from the Yadkin and Catawba rivers to supply communities near fast-growing Charlotte. Georgia and South Carolina are negotiating over the Savannah River. And Alabama and Florida have been in a decades-long “water war” with Georgia over management of two huge river basins, with Georgia wanting to keep as much water as possible upstream to feed metro Atlanta’s growth, and the other two states wanting sufficient flows downstream for fisheries, farmers and future development. In the heat of the 2007 drought, Georgia went so far as to try to officially move the state boundary to gain access to the Tennessee River.
Aside from political disputes, building dams and pipelines is exorbitantly costly, financially and environmentally. Obstructing the natural flow of a river leads to a host of problems, from destroying freshwater wetlands to altering water chemistry to impeding the life cycles of aquatic species. Moreover, reservoirs trap sediment, so depending on land use patterns in the watershed, they can fill up with mud, reducing their water-holding capacity.
The Wild Card
If planning for water use based on population growth and development patterns is like playing poker, with resource managers calculating the odds as best they can, factoring in climate change is like stacking the deck with wild cards – with Mother Nature as the dealer.
Among climate scientists, says Steve McNulty, research ecologist with Southern Forest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, “There’s strong agreement, actually I would say universal agreement, that it’s going to get warmer.
“The rate of warming is an issue of some debate, and when it comes to precipitation, there’s even more debate. And within that, the timing and duration is subject to even more debate.”
McNulty and other scientists do agree that weather events are becoming more intense. In the mountains, he says, “you won’t have a three-day gentle rain, you’ll have a two-hour downpour,” and that makes all the difference in whether water is absorbed and stored for later use, or rushes over ground, overwhelming streams in what McNulty calls “flashy” events.
Since 1934, the southern Appalachian region saw a record drought from 1985 to 1988, record precipitation in 1989 (Hurricane Hugo), and another record drought from 1999 to 2001, says Jim Vose, project leader at the Forest Service’s Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Otto, N.C. Then there was the unforgettable hurricane season of 2005, and depending on how you slice it, more record-busting droughts in 2007 and 2008 in parts of the mountain region.
Drought conditions mean recreational reservoirs such as Lake Jocassee, in upstate South Carolina, drop well below their typical level. Photo by Cara Ellen Modisett.
Hesitant to blame any one event on climate change, Vose says these patterns are consistent with computer modeling of a warming planet.
“In many ways it doesn’t matter whether it’s a natural phenomenon or related to [manmade] climate change because it’s affecting people. It’s happening, and we have to deal with it.”
Hedging our Bets
So how do we deal with it?
“One thing I tell people,” says former UT water researcher Feldman, “a lot of this really comes down to internalizing an environmental ethic. Without exaggerating, one of the characteristics of the southern Appalachians is that the people who settled there were very environmentally oriented. They were savers, they were scrimpers. Back then, you were frugal, you didn’t waste.
“I think that’s what people need to get back to thinking about – the very reason that they love where they live, and they want to keep it beautiful. So just live a little more simply. Think of the ways you can do more with what you have.”
Jenny Hoffner, director of water efficiency for the Southeast region of American Rivers, agrees. “We have had this notion that water is not finite, but, really, as we go forward, we need to start treating it as a precious resource,” Hoffner recently told an audience at a community meeting in Birmingham.
Environmental groups like American Rivers want to steer away from building more reservoirs and pipelines, and advocate instead increasing water efficiency and conservation, and smarter land use planning. The river group published a report in 2008, “Hidden Reservoir: Why Water Efficiency is the Best Solution for the Southeast,” chock full of compelling statistics. Consider: Efficiency measures in Charlotte could yield 21 to 33 percent more water, providing enough for up to 205,000 new residents, and save the city $75 million to $160 million as compared to building new dams.
Saving water will also save energy, and vice versa. If older, inefficient toilets, faucets and showerheads in half of American homes were replaced with WaterSense (EPA certified) fixtures, according to the report, the country would save about five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year, avoiding greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing about 750,000 vehicles from the road. And, of course, the more energy we save, the more we are hedging our bets against the most profound effects of climate change.
Living Lighter on the Land
In addition to replacing fixtures and taking shorter showers, how and where we build the homes, offices, roads, malls and neighborhoods of the future is critical. In the U.S., 50 percent of the homes that will exist in 2030 have not yet been built. That’s a significant opportunity to become better stewards of our natural resources.
More compact, “in-fill” development reduces the distance for piping treated water and preserves fields and forests where rain can recharge streams and aquifers. Green roofs help slow the flow of stormwater and keep buildings cooler. Appropriate landscaping cuts down on outdoor watering, which accounts for a third of water use for most American homes. Designing buildings to reuse “gray water” and communities to reuse stormwater for non-consumptive uses squeezes more out of every drop.
“It will be difficult to control the growth in demand for water because this is a desirable place to live,” says Vose, speaking of the Appalachian mountain region, but we can manage that growth better. And preserving green space is key. Forests not only produce the highest quality water, they also help clean it, he says. In an experiment on the Chattooga River downstream from Cashiers, N.C., Vose showed that the water quality improved after flowing through just one mile of the Nantahala National Forest.
The cities of Asheville, Roanoke and Greenville (South Carolina) latched onto this simple concept some years ago. Each has put thousands of acres of land in the watersheds of their drinking water reservoirs under permanent conservation easement. By keeping development out, they are keeping the ecosystem whole and functioning – and saving on water treatment costs.
Taking the Macro View
We all live downstream, as the saying goes – so while individual and community water-saving efforts are vital, broader action at the state level is key. In a report last year, the Southern Environmental Law Center said that southern states have largely failed to plan adequately for long-term, comprehensive, sustainable water use. Some have what they call a statewide plan, but they lack the regulatory hooks to make them effective or, like Georgia’s, focus too much on building reservoirs.
Since the drought of 2007-2008, most states in the region are drafting such plans or reviewing existing ones to prepare better for the future. One of the most important steps towards sustaining water resources for human and aquatic life is maintaining natural stream flows, according to the law center. This means protecting headwater streams, safeguarding wetlands, reducing stormwater runoff, avoiding or limiting dams and pipelines, as well as controlling sediment and other pollutants to keep the water clean.
The closer we adhere to nature’s design, honed over millennia, the better the ecosystems will work for us, the thinking goes – all the more urgent now as the planet and its inhabitants dig in to withstand the changes to come.