None of us who lived it will ever forget the Fourth of July in Georgia in 1994. It started overcast and we were told there was a “chance of rain.” The Peachtree Road Race went off without a hitch, with most runners rejoicing for the cooler temperatures and a few touches of misty rain. But, by the time the Braves were ready to take the field for their game that night at the old Fulton County Stadium, the mist had turned to a torrent.
What followed was several days of abnormally heavy downpours, a seemingly endless barrage of water falling from the sky. It would not be long before we were being told (as if anybody had to be told) that we were experiencing the 100-year flood (although, in reality, there is no such thing as a 100-year flood; they can actually occur two years in a row).
Before it was over, swollen rivers and creeks devastated property, disrupted lives and posed major threats to entire towns up and down the state. None of us needed a lesson on the wrath Mother Nature can dish out, but we got one anyway.
Fast forward to 2007, when we are facing the opposite of a 100-year flood, only this time it is a historic drought that has actually been developing for several years. Real droughts, I am told, don’t go away when it rains, but their effects are delayed. A long dry spell is all that is needed for the drought to get really bad. It has.
Not long ago, I was having dinner with a small group of Georgia business and government leaders and the subject of the drought came up. A remark by one of the guests stuck with me. He said that too many of us think that a good rain will solve the water problem we face in Georgia. I asked him if a “good” rain won’t solve the problem, what would? And that is when the conversation got interesting.
We are all learning more about water, its origin, the path it takes when it flows south, how it is allocated and how it is (or should be) used. The lessons are hard because there are no easy answers.
To their credit, both elected and appointed officials and business leaders in our state saw the water crisis coming and they took steps early on to get out in front of it. It is just hard to get a handle on a problem that is so complex as to make the solution so illusive. An awful lot of people mean well — they have the very best of intentions — but we seem to have gotten bogged down in finger pointing, accusations and occasional bursts of temper, coming from high places.
Almost a year ago, the Georgia Chamber recognized that any major water shortage would be destructive to business and thus harm our state’s economy. We commissioned a study to tell us the extent of the problem and the risks it posed. You never like to hear “worst case scenarios,” but we heard some and they alarmed us. We reacted by searching the world for a person to add to our staff to serve as the advocate for business during water negotiations, which have really yet to begin.
We were able to secure the services of Doug Miell, a water expert from Australia, who faced and helped solve an almost identical water crisis in New South Wales. Doug has been on the job in Georgia for several months and the pace of his work is picking up.
Business is not oblivious to the fact that it is a major consumer of water. That would be hard to deny. And, business is aware that there may be some drastic changes in the wind. If the regulations and new laws are fair and equitable, business will adjust to them just like everyone else.
But, in our role as the voice of Georgia business, we have a duty and an obligation to make certain that all parties know that short term fixes regarding water usage and allocation that damage the engine that drives our economy are not really fixes at all. They will be the unwelcome gift that keeps on giving and leaves in its wake, a weakened economy and a ravaged work force.
It’s one thing to do without all the water we need and want, but it’s quite another to put small businesses and Georgia workers out of business. Only another 100-year flood can solve our problem that and we don’t expect another one of those for quite a while.
George Israel is the president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.