It’s Time To Lobby For Sane Water Policy [Opinion]

Carol MillerEditor’s Note: Over the next several months, this column will feature a roundtable of viewpoints from various team members with vested interest in and experience with Greenhouse Grower and the horticulture market.

Back in 2007, the Southeast was in the midst of an unusual drought. As a region that is not used to droughts, the drought was especially turbulent for local governements, water management councils, growers, farmers and homeowners.

Legal action broke out over the rights to water in Lake Lanier, which is the main water source for the greater Atlanta area. Georgia planned to pull more water from the already partially depleted lake to ease the water burden in Atlanta. But Lake Lanier is also the source for major rivers that flow into Florida and Alabama, which in turn supply water for several cities in those states, as well as agriculture. The two neighboring states successfully sued Georgia to stop pulling the extra water.

Perhaps that is why the state enacted such draconian measures. The politicians were faced with an unprecedented situation and decided to shut down any home garden watering, state wide. They felt that enforcing a one-day-a-week water policy would be impossible to enforce. In states more accustomed to drought conditions, restrictions are enacted earlier, and enforcing watering bans by weekdays (and even hours) is routine. There’s an understanding that zero watering not only places a financial burden on homeowners to replace the entire yard, but it is also counterproductive in a drought. Dead plants and lawn lead to more erosion and can make recovering from a drought more difficult.

Naturally, when homeowners stopped watering, they stopped buying plants. Despite a heroic effort upon the green industry’s part to lift the ban, it lasted long enough to destroy a huge percentage of the state’s greenhouse industry. Out of the 79,000 green industry employees in Georgia, 35,000 lost their jobs by January 2008. The industry lost $3.15 billion in 2007 alone, Georgia Green Industry Association reported at the time. One figure I heard repeatedly at the time was that a full quarter of Georgia growers were out of business by the end of the ban.

Make Your Voice Heard

The big lesson many took away from this was the importance of the green industry to engage local and state water boards in discussing water management practices. In neighboring North Carolina, the drought was just as severe (it reached the highest level the U.S. Drought Monitor has, exceptional drought), but instead of a single state-wide water policy, North Carolina was divided up into districts. Watering ban severity differed dramatically from district to district, and in those areas where the ban was most nuanced, it turns out green industry members had a role in forming policy.

This year’s Seeley Summit focused on the ongoing water issues (take a look at Amanda Gallagher’s report on it here). Attendees and speakers not only discussed how the Southwest and California drought is impacting the green industry, it also looked at long-term issues we as an industry need to address.

Water scarcity will be a big issue in the coming years. Growers are way ahead of many other industries in how they recycle waste water and reduce the amount used in growing. Ours is a valuable perspective water councils across the country could benefit from. I urge you to reach out to your local board soon, especially those of you who are not in the midst of a crisis. Your voice will matter more when you aren’t seen as just one more group battling the board for your slice of a dwindling pie.

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