A tiny spring bubbles out of a rich forest loam of a shady depression on a north Georgia mountainside. The Chattachoochee River is born here. In its infancy, you can easily step across it. I did. I owed myself that tiny but satisfying pleasure after hours of searching for the river’s source in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains.
I was drawn to the region almost nine years ago by reports of the unprecedented damage a seemingly never-ending drought was visiting on landscape, turf and live plant businesses in the state. I drove there in a rental after visiting my aged mom in Tennessee. I sought whatever measure of the region’s prolonged dry spell the river could provide me.
What struck me, apart from the solitude and the beauty of the river’s birthplace, was the seeming insignificance of this tiny brook… that is, given its vital importance. The Chattachoochee (along with the five lakes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created from it in the 1950s and 1960s) supplies about 70 percent of Metro Atlanta’s drinking water.
I realized — a realization that strengthened as I drove the river’s winding journey south to Atlanta — that, even with the ending of that particular drought, the region’s water problems would be far from over. Metro Atlanta, with a population of more than 5 million people (and growing) has outgrown the river and the small lakes which it supplies. The Chattahoochee remains a very modest river when, only a tenth of its 400-plus-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, it snakes its way south through Atlanta’s suburbs.
Now, almost a decade later, another drought is gripping north Georgia. This drought has not been nearly as severe or as damaging to the green industry.
Those of us in the landscape, turfgrass and live plant business know that the economy and the weather are the two largest uncontrollable forces that affect our businesses. If both are favorable, we prosper. If one or the other is less than favorable, we scramble. If both slam us at the same time, we suffer.
Ten years ago much of Georgia suffered that dreaded double whammy – the brutal five-year drought coupled with The Great Recession. As the drought worsened and the region’s water supply dried up, Georgia Gov. Will Perdue declared a total ban on landscape irrigation in much of the state. Green industry companies struggled and many companies failed.
The biggest casualty was a 50-year-old green industry business strongly identified with the region. William “Pete” Pike founded Pike Family Nurseries in 1958. The Pike family ran the company – eventually operating about 20 retail locations in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina – until 2004 when private-equity firm Roark Capital Group acquired a majority stake in the company. In November 2007 the company filed for bankruptcy protection. In March 2008, a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of most of the company’s retail locations.
Nothing nearly so dramatic has resulted from this latest dry spell, nor is it expected to.
Even so, it is unclear what lessons the historic drought of a decade ago taught the green industry – right plant/right place, smart irrigation, turfgrass where turfgrass is appropriate and so forth. I surmise that the green industry companies surviving the drought learned from it and have grown since.
What’s more apparent is the lesson the drought taught regional water authorities. It served as a long-needed wakeup call.
This past March, as part of a $1 billion, five-year capital improvement program, Atlanta began a project to bore a 5-mile-long, 10-feet-wide tunnel through granite from the Chattahoochee to an abandoned quarry. The reservoir, when filled with water, is expected to provide more than 1 million people in the region water for a minimum of 30 days in the event of a severe drought or an emergency affecting the Chattahoochee. It’s a start, an encouraging start.
Many Atlanta-area residents will pay higher water and sewer rates and a sales tax approved by voters to fund the quarry project and the other water capital improvements.
Georgia’s example reminds us of the cost of providing our society with an adequate supply of water. That financial expense will be great, especially in regions of the country experiencing growth and where water demand regularly stresses supply.
The cost to those of us in the green industry is counted in continued innovation and education, neither of which we can ignore at the peril of our businesses drying up when the next drought arrives… as it surely will.