Water shortages plague Florida's oysters, with four out of five oysters between Cedar Key and Apalachicola Bay dying off last summer, many supposedly of "perkinsus (a parasite, more commonly called"dermo"), according to Cindy Swirko (2012).
While some organisms survive increasing salinity, oysters don't. Oysters' 2012 health problems were associated with increased salinity, heat, and sudden influxes of fresh water, the latter experienced during last year's storms, says Swirko. (The cashier at Family Coastal Restaurant in Sopchoppy, Florida disagrees somewhat and says over-harvesting is the main issue.)
It's the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that controls the flow of water into the Chattahoochee-Flint-Appalachicola Basin, and this water must be split between various uses: drinking and lawns in populated areas, farm needs in rural areas, and power needs, before flowing into Apalachicola Bay. And recent Georgia rainfall has been well below normal, according to NOAA data.
Not just oysters, but mussels too, plus excellent speckled trout and other species depend on the brackish water coming into the Bay. Farther up the Chattahoochee River, largemouth bass, freshwater trout and mussels, and other freshwater fish are important.
The basin is in fact one of the most biodiverse regions in North America. More species of reptile and amphibian are found in the basin than anywhere else in on the continent north of Mexico. In addition, near Lake Seminole, white squirrels and relatively rare "Eastern Fox Squirrels" are found.
The river's course takes it through forested mountains and foothills, at altitudes of several thousand feet, then through urban Atlanta to the farming areas of the coastal plain, passing through numerous hydroelectric dams along the way, to merge with the Flint River into the Florida aquifer. There it's fed by Alabama's Chipola River. All along the way, the river is changing.
Metropolitan Atlanta's population accelerated its increase after 1960. In the last four or five decades the population increased fourfold, and growth is expected to continue. Today Georgia is the sixth fastest growing state in the U.S. Much of this is due to immigration.
The Southeast has some of the nation's fastest growing urban areas, with about twice as much developed land (twelve percent of Southeast land is developed/urban) as the rest of the United States. It also claims some of the U.S.'s largest amounts of forest. About 70% of the Chattahoochee Basin is forested (much commercial) while nearly 13% is agricultural. Forest cover is forecast to decline by around 7% over the next four decades.
Changes in plant cover, "forest to agriculture, forest or agriculture to urban result in complex changes in radiation patterns," says Jacquelyn Crim who studied the basin at Auburn University (2007).
Withdrawal of Water
Periodic drought and pumping of water for agricultural uses since the mid-1970s, when irrigation became available for Georgia agriculture, have, according to the United States Geological Survey, caused a decline in water levels in the aquifer along the lower Flint River, which joins the Chattahoochee in Lake Seminole. Ground water levels can of course affect the river system. During drought, ground water may help to preserve water levels.
Between 1970 and 1990, total withdrawals from the basin increased by forty-two percent according to Georgia's Department of Environmental Protection. Surface water withdrawals, the primary source of water for the upper basin area, increased by 29%, while ground water withdrawals increased by 240%. No crisis was felt however until the drought of 1998 to 2003, when some creeks dried completely.
Besides agriculture, increasing energy use has spurred increased withdrawals. More water is pumped for energy than for farming, and only half of that is returned to the river, according to Times-Georgian's Kelly Quimby (2011). In addition, well over 400 million gallons of drinking water are pumped from the River daily.
Meanwhile over 3 million gallons of treated sewage are dumped into the Chattahoochee every day, most from Atlanta, some from other cities and towns in Alabama and Georgia.
Tri-State War History
In 1990 Alabama sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for allowing Lake Sidney Lanier, the largest of the Chattahoochee's reservoirs (Lake Lanier houses 62% of stored Chattahoochee water) to be "tapped" by Atlanta's thirsty residents beginning in 1989. The states on the basin were then asked to assess water needs but did not reach agreement.
Georgia Conservation Measures
Meanwhile in 1999, Georgia, which had since 1988 required permits for wells that pumped over 100,000 gallons daily, placed a five-year moratorium on agricultural water development and well permitting. And, beginning in 2001, the "Flint River Drought Protection Act" allowed some cropland to be removed from irrigation in exchange for compensation.
In 2009, a Federal Judge ruled against Georgia, asking it to reach an agreement by 2012 with the two other states sharing the basin, Alabama and Florida. Efforts to conserve water in the metro Atlanta area followed (see Cobb County's guide). In 2010 metro Atlanta began adopting tiered billing for water, following the steps of Los Angeles, California (Los Angeles implemented tiered billing beginning in 1993) and several other U.S. cities. (For the complete list of 2009 water conservation measures and a comparison with previous measures, see Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper's "Filling the Water Gap" Appendix.)
During the 2006 through 2009 drought, Atlanta's residents temporarily reduced water use by twenty percent, says the Riverkeeper report. An update to the "Water Gap" report suggests that measures such as multi-tiered pricing, new plumbing fixtures, and rainwater harvesting may save around 140 million gallons of water daily in metro-Atlanta.
In 2011, the 2009 ruling against Georgia was reversed. The reversal was upheld in 2012.
Waste Problems Repaired
Meanwhile, in 1995, the Riverkeeper sued Atlanta for dumping untreated sewage into the Chattahoochee. Since then, according to Riverkeeper director Sally Bethea, up to ninety-seven percent of bacteria has been removed (Times-Georgian).
Bacteria levels are highest immediately after waste enters. Farther downstream, bacteria is absorbed into the streambed, and so is not as high. However, rain and turbulence can still mean increased bacteria in the Chattahoochee waters, according to Auburn University researcher Crim. And, while bacteria levels have decreased, water quantity is still at issue.
Not Enough Watershed?
There are two explanations for the water shortage. The first is the relatively small amount of watershed available for capturing water for so many, says the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper argues that, ". . . Dallas has nearly six times as much land area as Atlanta available for capturing and storing water needed to supply its population."
Also as noted, a large percentage of the land in the U.S. Southeast is developed with impervious pavement. Auburn University researcher Crim reported a large increase in the amount of urbanized land along the River between 1992 and 1997. Impervious pavement of course means more runoff and less seepage into the aquifer.
Too Little Rain?
Another explanation is lack of rain. North Georgia, like its neighbor North Carolina, has faced drought since 2011 (the NOAA has forecast some abatement). Prior droughts in Georgia occurred between 2006 or 2007 and 2009, in step with the economic and housing crunch; and between 1998 and 2003.
Nevertheless, according to NOAA (National Climatic Data Center) climate data, over the last hundred years, rain has increased slightly in Georgia. Georgia rainfall peaked around the mid-century and is again declining, but is not "out of bounds."
The drought thus may be temporary. However Southwest Georgia rainfall has been decreasing since the 1940s, according to Jones Ecological Research Center's researchers Hicks and Golladay's graphs ("Seasonal Rainfall in Southwestern Georgia"). NOAA data shows decreasing rainfall over the last hundred years for six states in the mainland U.S.: California, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Maine; Maine's rainfall however has increased in the last decade.
One potential impact of reducing permeable surfaces and the resulting increased runoff is that wet areas become wetter while dry areas drier. However some "dry" states such as Arizona have in fact become "wetter," according to the NOAA data. And, unless the current Georgia drought is a bit more permanent than previous droughts, Georgia, unlike California, still has plenty of rain.
NOAA climate data for the last hundred years for both temperature and rainfall does not show current fluctuations in both precipitation and temperature to be "out of the norm." To see anything different about recent years, one has to look farther.
Major climate changes occurred in U.S. Atlantic Basin in the 17th and 18th centuries. This may have been because of environmental stresses precipitated by European colonization, or a result of the "Little Ice Age." The so-called "Little Ice Age" occurred in the Atlantic Basin and elsewhere between 1600 and 1900.
We are now in a warm period however. Since the late 20th century, the North American climate has been warmer than any other period in the last millenia but nevertheless is not "out of bounds" for the millenia, says a report by Michael Mann. But it's a lot warmer than the preceding "Little Ice Age." Precipitation has been declining in the Caribbean basin since 1930 according to some data, says Amos Winter (2011; 2013). Winter attributes much of the change in rainfall to the "Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation.
As noted above, the single major use of the Chattahoochee waters is power, with thirteen hydroelectric dams dotting the Chattahoochee's mainstem. Hydroelectric impoundments along the river include Plant Yates, a coal-fired plant southwest of Atlanta, often called Georgia's "dirtiest" power plant, Plant Farley in Alabama, and Florida's Woodruff Dam.
Gypsum and possibly coal ash at Plant Yates have been cited by Environmental Integrity Project's Jeff Stant as being above EPA guidelines says Times-Georgian's Quimby. Plant Yates is slated to shut down all but two units in 2015. Those two will be converted to natural gas. Power lost to the shutdown will be supplied by expansion of Plant Vogtle (on the Savannah River).
In contrast to Plant Yates, the releases from nuclear-powered Plant Farley, which operates two pressurized water generators into the environment, are considered to be below EPA guidelines. Plant Farley's bi-products include tritium (in water). Elevated tritium levels were found downstream from the plant in 2000 and 2002, during the 1998-2003 drought (both before and after generators were replaced; the levels declined during the relatively wet 2001 year however). Another bi-product is cobalt 60 in sediment. A third (and perhaps the only other bi-product) is a radioactive caesium isotope that has been found some in largemouth bass downstream from the plant. However as noted these contaminants are well below EPA guidelines. (See Georgia Department of Environmental Protection's report, "Joseph M. Farley Nuclear Plant" for more.) But would it be possible to convert Plant Farley's cooling system to "closed loop," which can reduce water use by over 30-fold?
Water Quality and Development
Auburn University's Crim looked at contaminants in the river. Bacteria counts (fecal coliform and e coli) are highest in urban areas, and are associated with the total amount of impervious surfaces as well as a lack of forested area, while fertilizer-associated contaminants are highest in rural areas. Crim provides no information about chemicals associated with gas and other runoff from roadways.
In forested areas, even just downstream of urban areas, bacteria counts are low except after storms. After storms, bacteria increase downstream of urban areas, because storms apparently stir up bacteria deposited in sediments.
A little development may do the most damage to the watershed, according to Crim's data, with the biggest increase of toxins in runoff occurring when an area goes from being almost completely rural or forested to beginning urban development. After some urban development has occurred (three percent impervious roadways), as additional development takes place, the rate of increase in toxins levels off. Such data suggests that development of forested areas must be carefully planned.
Options for the River: Farming
New farming techniques might help. These include changes in tillage methods and crop rotation between grasses and other crops (actually old methods that haven't always been applied).
Other options include lower pressure nodules on irrigation systems. These leave less water to runoff or evaporate. Another option, "Variable Rate Irrigation," "employs soil moisture monitors and a wireless broadband network" to determine when and how much to irrigate. This system, developed by the University of Georgia and Stripling Irrigation Research Park allows "farmers to "control to fractions of an acre where . . . water goes," say Watson and Scarborough, authors of "Flint River Basin Irrigation."
Reclaimed water is another possible option for farmers, but care must be taken that reclaimed water is adequately treated. Reclaimed water may be best for irrigating plants that won't be consumed by humans or livestock. In any case, care should be taken to eliminate salmonella from effluent. Several treatments may be required says University of California's Yates.
Xeriscaping; Rain and Wetlands Gardens
Xeriscaping, rain, and wetlands gardens make use of local plants that can live off local rainfall. Xeriscaping, rain, and wetlands gardens also make use of "zones." For xeriscaping, this means excessive watering is not needed in most zones. Rain and wetlands gardens on the other hand hold rainwater, slowing runoff, allowing it to drain into the soil and aquifer, instead of evaporating or running into the river.
Better Septic Systems, Gravel Driveways
Mound septic systems allow septic areas to drain into a mound of soil when drainage is otherwise inadequate. Another promising option in septic systems, albeit expensive, involves using peat moss (Canadian spaghnum or imitation peat moss) as the filter, instead of more traditional sand or gravel. Also, in some instances, composting toilets are an option. Finally, carefully designed gravel roadways might replace paved driveways for end use.