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Stricter water laws to come?
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With the drought foremost on the minds of many government officials and planning experts across the state some individuals, including residents in Newton County, are advocating the adoption of a water conservation plan to guide the area both in times of rain and in times of drought.

When the Georgia General Assembly convenes later this month, one of the main items it will consider this year is the adoption of a state-wide water management plan. A draft of the water plan released in September by the Environmental Protection Division contains the general goals of minimizing water withdrawals from the state's river basins, making the most out of the water withdrawn and protecting water quality.

On a local level, government officials and non-profits have debated the merits of several proposals to limit further county water consumption. Options range from the drastic such as a moratorium on the construction of new homes, to the more moderate such as the adoption of an ordinance requiring that all future homes have gray water recycling systems installed and the adoption of a county water conservation plan.

Behind each of these proposals lies the question of whether the drought is simply a rare weather occurrence, the kind that occurs once every 100 years or is it a result of climate change brought on by global warming.

The level of rainfall the state receives in the next several years will go a long way to determine how many people view the drought in a long-term context. State Climatologist David Stooksbury has predicted a dry winter and spring for 2008. As winter and spring are typically the time when rivers and reservoirs are replenished, the outlook for the drier summer growing season does not look good.

Stooksbury said he believes it is still too early to call the drought a sign of climate change, saying that climate change patterns generally take longer to discern. However, Stooksbury said he could not say that the drought is not part of climate change.

"Even a couple of years worth of weather can not be attributed to climate change, but at the same time we cannot say that it is not climate change," Stooksbury said. "We don't see a trend one way or the other."

Stooksbury said that it will probably be 20 years or more before scientists can look back and say with any confidence whether the drought is or isn't associated with climate change.

Ideas on the local level

While climatologists might not be comfortable declaring the drought a part of climate change, some local leaders would rather not take the chance on future low levels of rain and are advocating for a permanent change in water consumption patterns now.

In a questionnaire distributed to all candidates running for city office last November, Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful asked whether the candidates would be in support of a moratorium on new construction while local water resources are fully assessed.

Most of the candidates did not dismiss the possibility of a moratorium in the future if the water situation were to become severe enough but said they would first want to explore other options first.

"We need to plan for a future where drought is more frequent and severe than in the recent past which is why I support Newton County's renewed effort to move forward on the Bear Creek Reservoir," wrote Covington Mayor Kim Carter.

Connie Waller, executive director of Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful, said the organization has not taken a position in favor of or against a building moratorium. However, the organization does have a position strongly in favor of the adoption of a local water conservation plan Waller said.

"Our position is always personal responsibility," Waller said. "I feel like we're so crisis oriented that we won't think about it until our next crisis and then we'll go back to our old ways. I would like to encourage our community to have a conservation plan and ask citizens to follow best management practices.

Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, said that with normal rainfall levels, the county has enough water resources to support the level of growth experienced in recent years. The NCWSA is the largest water utility in the county with approximately 22,000 customers, the vast majority of which are residential.

According to the Southeast Regional Climate Center, the mean average of yearly rainfall in Covington for the past 50 years, including 2007, is 49.25 inches. In 2007 the city experienced only 31.52 inches according to the Georgia Automated Environmental Monitoring Network.

"If we had normal rainfall, we would have no problem supporting the growth that is occurring in the county," said Hopkins in an earlier interview. "It only gets heightened or looked at more closely when you have a drought."

With the recent housing market slowdown, Hopkins says that requests for new residential water lines have tapered off. According to Hopkins, in 2006 the NCWSA experienced a 10 percent growth rate in customers compared to only 5 percent in 2007. Hopkins said water customer growth for 2008 was only predicted at 1 to 2 percent.

Still Hopkins said the NCWSA was "reevaluating our strategies" in the event of significantly less rainfall in the future.

"My opinion is not to wait before it gets up on us before we start to make changes," Hopkins said. "We're not saying this is a freak of nature, a once in a 100-year period (occurrence). I don't believe in that. I believe we need to be studying and evaluating this thing."

Other Metro Atlanta communities are also debating stricter water conservation measures. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that in November city leaders in Sandy Springs proposed new guidelines that would require builders to install gray-water systems in new homes costing $500,000 or more.

Gray water is the wastewater left over from domestic uses such as showering, washing dishes and running the laundry. It accounts for the majority of water used in the home and does not include sewage water. A gray water recycling system captures gray water and recycles it directly back into the home's secondary plumbing to be used for irrigation and gardening purposes.

In recent years the use of gray water recycling systems in nations with far fewer water resources than the U.S., such as Jordan and Australia, has become common.

At a December Newton County Board of Commissioners meeting, District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons brought up the possibility of adopting a gray water recycling system policy for the construction of new homes in Newton County.

"I would agree to an ordinance or support an ordinance that would capture the gray water and use it for purposes of irrigation," Simmons said last week. "We will have an uphill fight (with the state) if we try to do anything in addition to it."