As many areas of the country, including Georgia, are in the midst of long-term, potentially devastating droughts, it begs the questions: Are these droughts impacting our attitudes toward water quality and the development of related policies? Has the diminishing quality of our most precious resource emerged as a social or regulatory priority as quantity wanes?
Logically, as a resource becomes scarce, the natural instinct is to protect and preserve it. Unfortunately, the potential for devastating economic and environmental impacts from these droughts has not created any sense of urgency to ensure that the quality of this highly stressed and limited resource is maintained in a sustainable manner. There seems to be little, if any, concern for downstream neighbors’ ability to use surface water for recreation or potential drinking water. While we argue over the cost of mandates requiring effective storm water treatment on new construction and redevelopments, low-flow toilets and other such requirements to enhance sustainability, the drinking water supplies of downstream users are becoming more concentrated with wastewater effluent and storm water pollutants.
In a recent conversation on the issue of conservation with a local regulator, the regulator concluded there is not a clear link between drought and water quality—that it is very unlikely that droughts will create a heightened awareness of water quality issues, much less related regulations. On the heels of this conversation, the National Research Council released the report “Urban Stormwater Management in the United States,” which indicated that current storm water programs in the U.S. are not sufficient. If current regulations are not sufficient to prevent water quality degradation under standard conditions, how can they possibly be sufficient to ensure protection in drought-stressed environments?
We have an opportunity to look at the big picture and review our policies and strategies in a manner that considers the widespread impacts of the water resource problem and creates a comprehensive solution, even though there will be challenges. As shown in the past, many conservation efforts have failed because the problems were deemed too big or the truly viable solutions were unpopular. We have to move beyond our tendency to follow the path of least resistance and implement piecemeal solutions; we must take on the uncomfortable and potentially unpopular task of identifying and implementing real solutions.
We have not seen water shortages spawn public commitment to the conservation of water resources. At best, water issues that have come to the surface during these droughts have been addressed with short-term duct-tape solutions. The tendency remains to look at individual issues in a vacuum. While these are economically lean times and the burden on development should be minimized, we cannot procrastinate. The problems are becoming larger and more complex, and they will be much more expensive to mitigate at some future date.
We must fully assess the long-term financial and environmental burden of failing to adequately provide for conservation mandates and other quantity solutions. Ignoring the degradation of water quality—one of our most precious resources—is not an option. Solutions will only become more expensive as the problem worsens.