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To fight drought, Georgians get creative

A roof, two tanks, and a pump are key tools for one Atlantan's do-it-yourself rain harvesting.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2007



Atlanta

Even as the state's main reservoir, Lake Lanier, shows a cracked lake bottom, Steve Carr has water splashing out the top of his tanks.

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His secret: A roof, two 550-gallon tanks, a pump, a couple of filters, and a little "head pressure" to prime the system.

Mr. Carr, a parts dealer who lives in a track-side industrial warehouse in the Grant Park neighborhood, built one of Atlanta's first personal "rain harvesting" systems.

"Hey, if I can build something like this, anyone can do it," he says.

In the midst of Georgia's most severe drought in 100 years, some state residents like Carr are taking responsibility to supply themselves with water. Many others are changing their behavior to conserve water, including how often they wash clothes, flush toilets, and use faucets, according to a Peach State Poll released Dec. 17. Four in 10 Georgians now say the drought is the most important problem facing the state today.

"People are realizing there are ways of retaining basic lifestyles, but you have to do so with some changes," says David Feldman, a water policy expert at the University of California, Irvine. "And you can't blame the consumer for [the crisis]. The problem is you've got a protracted drought which has exacerbated an existing supply problem that's been festering for decades."

But experts say that the growing number of residents catching water off roofs to use for drinking or irrigation is not merely about personal responsibility but also a sign of simmering distrust in government's ability to supply water in the future.

Critics say a 17-year drought planning project failed to address the region's essential needs. Meanwhile, a water war is ongoing between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, which all use the Chattahoochee River.

The state is working to counter the perception that the drought is out of control. On Monday, Gov. Sonny Purdue met with the governors of Alabama and Florida at a drought summit in Tallahassee, Fla. While there, Governor Perdue noted the Peach State's successful conservation measures and said Georgia won't ask the Army Corps of Engineers to further restrict flow from Lake Lanier into the Apalachicola Bay downstream.

But others say more conservation is needed. The city must cut water usage by 50 percent in the next 20 years to make up for its population growth; so far, even with water quickly running out, it has barely been able to reduce usage by 10 percent, experts say.

"[The drought] has been a real gestalt change for the residents of Georgia," says Rich Clark, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens, who conducted the Peach State Poll.

Metro Atlanta went from having almost no rain harvesters to more than three dozen in the past year, says Snellville, Ga.-based Paul Morgan, one of the main Georgia suppliers of rain collection systems. "People are starting to realize this is not a weather problem, it's a population problem," says Mr. Morgan.

A rain harvesting system for drinking water costs about $20,000, most of which goes to special gutters, pumps, filters, and storage. Backyard tanks are one option, but the system can be made completely invisible with the use of a basement cistern – often a lined concrete tank.

Experts say a 1,200 square-foot house can collect 750 gallons during a one-inch rain. During this Georgia drought, that equals 22,500 gallons a year, or 61 gallons per day. (An average shower takes about 20 gallons, the same as a modern washing machine requires.) During a normal rain year in Georgia, a home cistern for the same small house could provide 110 gallons a day.

"People are just now realizing that water collection is an alternative to a municipal water system," says Greg Whitfield, the owner of Rain Well, a catchment contractor in Arlington, Texas.

One big-picture plan for Atlanta involves building a new state reservoir, but that could take 15 years and is complicated by prohibitive land prices and environmental concerns. Discussions are also under way to transfer water from the Tennessee River into some North Georgia towns to save more water from Lanier for Atlanta's needs.

While the state is not currently considering incentives for rainwater collection systems, the idea is beginning to draw attention. Channel 26, Atlanta's government TV channel, recently approached Carr about doing a segment on a contraption he built, it turns out, not to save the world, but because he couldn't afford city water.

Cisterns, of course, are one of man's original inventions, but they largely became obsolete with the advent of municipal water systems. Today, however, they're back in vogue in places such as California, Arizona, and New Mexico, where low rainfall and worries about aquifers have prompted states to offer tax incentives and rebates to homeowners to build personal rain harvesters. Even President Bush collects rainwater for irrigation at his Texas ranch.

The total number of home cisterns is not known, according to the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA) in Austin, Texas, but a new certification program introduced this year graduated 30 contractors, says Belinda McGhee, spokeswoman for ARCSA. Environmentally friendly building codes are driving the trend, too, she says.

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