Southeast economy faces long dry spell

A boat ramp is closed due to low water in a canal connected to Florida's Lake Okeechobee in July.

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KAI RYSSDAL: The United Nations issued its fourth-annual Global Environmental Outlook this week, and the outlook is dire. Scientists at the U.N. say if we humans keep consuming natural resources the way we're used to, many ecosystems will be driven past the point of no return.

Fresh water is right at the top of that list. You need look no futher than the Southeast United States, where many towns and cities, including Atlanta, are months away from simply running out of water completely.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports the economic fallout is just beginning.


Sam Eaton: Last weekend, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency for 85 counties. Then on Tuesday, he mandated a 10-percent reduction in the state's water use. Georgia and much of the Southeast are months into what's being called the worst drought in the region's history -- which has many wondering why regulators have waited so long to react.

Gil Rogers: Measures like that should have been taken, really, years ago.

Gil Rogers is with the Southern Environmental Law Center. He says Atlanta, for example, has the smallest city watershed in the country despite being one of the nation's fastest-growing metro areas.

Rogers: We were getting to a point where we were straining our water resources, regardless of whether there was a drought or not.

That strain has now reached a crisis point. Charles Krautler heads the Atlanta Regional Commission, the planning agency in charge of water use. He says the agency has done its best to balance water restrictions against economic needs.

Charles KRAUTLER: It's a fine line, because metro Atlanta is the biggest economy in the Southeast. And we need to assure that the economy continues to function, and people have the water that they need for their daily uses.

Krautler says the limited amount of water Atlanta is allowed to draw from its reservoir, based on endangered species laws, is already costing business. One measure limiting water use by landscaping companies has cost them about 14,000 jobs since June, and more than a billion dollars in lost revenue.

Mary Kay Woodworth with the Metro Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association says her industry has been unfairly singled out.

Mary Kay Woodworth: It's hard to say it's fairly allocated when no other consumer has been asked or mandated to stop using water.

The region's big industrial users, like Coca-Cola, have yet to face any limits on water use.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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