EconSouth (Fourth Quarter 2007)

Q & A

'We're Going to Struggle With This for Years'

An Interview With Mark Risse of the University of Georgia

Photo of Lester Killebrew
Title Professor
Organization University of Georgia
Function The university's Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering includes water resource engineering, which studies water demands, watersheds, and the design of water use systems.
Web site
Other Risse also coordinates the university's Agricultural Pollution Prevention Program, which assists farmers and rural residents on pollution prevention and provides them with technical resources.

Mark Risse, a professor in the University of Georgia's Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, is a water expert who studies water quality and supply issues in Georgia and the Southeast. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from Purdue University.

EconSouth: As major metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Birmingham face serious water supply questions, what are the possible long-term answers?

Mark Risse:The crystal ball is fuzzy. Having more reservoirs is one way of dealing with it. We [in north Georgia] definitely have a system where during winter we have more than enough water. Most of our shortages are in the summer and fall. When our water use peaks, we get less rain. So a reservoir is an appropriate solution—to store some of the water from when we have excess to use it later. The biggest issue with reservoirs is that they take so long to build, and it's getting more and more difficult to build them because of the environmental impact of damming streams. Plus, there's the value of land where we'd like to build reservoirs. It's getting harder and harder to find big tracts of land. I think in the future we're going to see more piping and interbasin transfers. But that has its problems as well.

ES: What are some of those problems?

Risse: A lot of people would prefer to see the growth move as opposed to the water moving to areas where the growth is occurring. We hear a lot about desalination, but that's really expensive, and to get it to north Georgia you're piping water uphill. I think that, for moving water to north Georgia, the Tennessee River basin around Chattanooga is the most logical. You can pump it downhill for the most part. Chattanooga-area residents are not nearly as affected by the droughts as we are and tend to have more excess water. That's going to be expensive, too.

And a lot of people are opposed to interbasin transfers. But if we don't transfer the water, the only other alternative to the transfer between basins and [to building] new reservoirs is stopping the growth. It's just not sustainable to allow Atlanta to continue growing without getting additional water from someplace.

ES: Do you think limiting growth in the Southeast's metro areas is out of the question?

Risse: It's not completely out of the question. I think we are going to come to a point where people are going to elect officials who are going to control growth. Even people who live in Atlanta and think everything's great would like to see an area that's less densely populated. I don't think it's going to happen real quickly, but I think that change will occur over time.

ES: In addition to Atlanta and Georgia, Florida and Alabama are also facing water supply issues. Are they all similar?

Risse: Florida is wrestling with the same issues [as Georgia]. The biggest restoration this nation's ever seen is down in the Everglades, and it's because the coastal communities were stealing all of the freshwater out of their own Everglades. I would actually say there are probably more people interested in smart growth and urban planning in Florida than there are here. Alabama hasn't really experienced as much of a boom. But I've stolen ideas from Florida and brought them to Georgia because they are working on those types of issues.

photo of Lake Lanier
Photo by Brad Newton
The dramatic reduction in Lake Lanier, which supplies drinking water to Atlanta, is a stark reminder of the importance of resource management during extreme drought.

ES: Will the disagreements among states over water continue?

Risse: It'll never end. You look at the western United States—and granted, they have different water laws and allocations—but they haven't had enough water since people started living out there. When snowmelt runs off it's all allocated, and people still have huge squabbles. We have a legal doctrine for water, and that's not well situated for dealing with squabbles. When your rules basically say everybody's entitled to use whatever they want, who's to say what's reasonable and what's not reasonable? It's a structure that more or less sets itself up for legal battles. I think we're going to struggle with this for years to come, until we change the laws to make them more understandable or until we have the legal precedents to know how these things will be settled.

ES: Is it inevitable that people in the Southeast are going to pay higher water rates?

Risse: Yes. Water is way too cheap today. It's sort of absurd how little we pay for it. When you get it to your tap, you're covering some of the cost of cleaning it and getting it to you, but you're not really paying anything for that resource. There's no doubt about it; it's going to get more expensive. We'll start valuing it as a true cost and as a resource at some point. And when it gets down to that, we'll be forced to conserve more.

ES: Is there a lot of work going on in the field of water efficiency?

Risse: Consultants do a lot of work on using water more efficiently. We had a guy here who'd go into a [manufacturing] plant and say, "You don't have to pay me. I get X percent of the savings you incur." If you can help an industry save a couple million gallons of water, you can pay yourself pretty well. I think that industry's going to develop more, especially as the cost of water goes up. And you've got a lot of engineering firms always looking at better ways to clean water. I'm sure we're going to find better ways to get groundwater and use groundwater, [such as] locating it and tapping it with wells.

ES: Are we likely to see a cultural shift, a fundamental change in the way we in the Southeast think of water?

Risse: I'd like to say yes, but that's going to be a long, slow process that'll probably occur over generations rather than years. We have programs we're promoting on using native plants, using drought-tolerant plants, and limiting the amount of grass in your landscape. We know those things will work and save water, but is that what the people really want? I'd say for the most part, if you drive around, no, that's not what they want right now.

This interview was conducted by staff writer Charles Davidson.