VALDOSTA — Water is a finite resource.

But John S. Quarterman says most people don't think about it that way, especially in South Georgia.

Quarterman is a member of WWALS Watershed Coalition, a conservation advocate group. He says people in South Georgia take the abundance of water in the region for granted.

"We assume it will always be there," Quarterman said. "We are in a very fortunate situation here, but that doesn't mean we can't do better."

For the City of Valdosta and Lowndes County, water is not an at-risk resource.

In larger cities and counties, such as parts of Atlanta, population growth and water resources are a major concern. There are communities in Atlanta that have taken steps to be more water conscious by being more efficient with the natural resource.

This is not only a local government concern; the state has taken new efficiency measures, too.

Georgia has implemented a number of successful water-efficiency projects to reduce demand on water sources, from the top levels of government to its neighborhoods. 

The Georgia Water Stewardship Act of 2010 requires builders to install water-efficient fixtures in all new residential and commercial construction statewide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It also requires individual water metering in new multi-unit buildings so residents of each unit will know how much water they use while having a financial incentive to conserve.

After the Cobb County Water System started a water-efficiency program in 2005, the county saw its per capita water use drop from 126 gallons per person per day to 113 gallons per person per day in 2010, according to the EPA.

In Valdosta, however, water is not much of a concern when it comes to overconsumption, according to city officials.

Each year, during fall and winter, Valdosta averages 8.5 million gallons a day. During spring and summer, water use increases to 10.5 million per day. 

Since there has been no significant population increase in the City of Valdosta for about 10 years, the consumption rate poses little risk to supply.

There has been a 0.4 percent population growth per year with the 2009 population at 52,262 and the 2019 population at 54,518. This compared to Cobb County's nearly 10 percent growth during the same period of time.

Lowndes County didn't fare much better for population growth. 

According to county officials, the population growth does not pose a threat to water supply. There was a total county water consumption rate of a little more than a billion gallons of water for 2018.

For efficiency measures, Lowndes County connects its water systems together for redundancy and to provide services to more residents, officials said.

People tend to think the utility department controls consumption, but this isn't the case, city officials said.

"Consumers control consumption," officials said in an email. "The utility ensures potable water is available, and educates consumers on beneficial uses. On average the utility will provide educational materials and guided tours to over a thousand citizens in our community annually."

Educating city residents is one of the ways the city works to preserve and conserve water.

The county also educates residents by recommending irrigating in the evening hours to reduce evaporation. On top of that, it mandates even and odd irrigation schedules when the state issues a drought notice.

Much of what Quarterman and the watershed coalition does is educate people who use the Floridan aquifer, he said. 

It's important to get people out on the water to show them the importance of the natural resource, but since most of the drinking water is more than 400 feet below them, it's hard to make people appreciate the resource, he said.

"We want to be careful about using up the aquifer," Quarterman said. "The water level goes down each year, and each year we have to dig deeper to get to the water."

Everyday people are not the major consumers of the aquifer, he said.

Quarterman said the thirstiest entities in South Georgia are farmers and not governments. Farmers use genetically modified seeds as crops that take more water than normal seeds, he said.

These seeds are engineered to be resistant to most pesticides, but take more water to grow.

According to a 2017 report by the Georgia Water Coalition, when it comes to water use nationally, the two primary economic sectors responsible for withdrawing the most water from state streams and aquifers are the energy and agricultural sectors. 

"The future of agriculture in Georgia is inextricably tied to access to clean and plentiful supplies of surface water and groundwater for irrigation purposes," the report states.

In 2010, Georgia ranked fourth in the southeast for total agricultural withdrawals behind Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina. The state uses an estimated 918,000,000 gallons per day from surface water and groundwater sources for irrigation purposes and livestock operations, according to the report.

The challenges states face in balancing water resources are unique to their regions, the report states. The hurdles are high but not insurmountable.

"There is only so much water available to go around," the report states. "Devising equitable mechanisms to access these limited resources in a world already impacted by climate change is imperative not optional."

Quarterman said there are things everyone can do to make an impact in water use.

The biggest one being using less water for lawn maintenance. This can be done, he said, by collecting rain and using it instead of water provided by the city.

He would like for the city to take similar precautions and further educate the population about what they can do to reduce water use.

The city and county could plant more trees to limit the amount of runoff after a rain. Trees also keep areas of the city cooler during the hotter months, therefore limiting evaporation rates.

Water in the city comes from 400-feet-deep wells and not from capturing surface water such as rain, officials said.

Valdosta gets its water supply from seven wells that are drilled into an underground layer of porous, water-bearing limestone known as the Upper Floridan Aquifer. This limestone layer lies under most of South Georgia and all of Florida.

"Generally, the aquifer is able to provide a prolific supply of good clean water," officials said. "In Valdosta, the top of the aquifer lies approximately 200 feet below ground surface and the city's wells are drilled an additional 200 feet into the limestone."

The Floridan Aquifer in the area of Valdosta and Lowndes County is known as a karst aquifer. 

This is an aquifer that has cracks, underground solution channels and caverns. These cracks can provide a route to allow contaminants to enter the aquifer, move about in the aquifer and alter the water supply and can cause special challenges for the city's water system.

City officials said most residents get water to their homes or businesses through underground pipes from the Valdosta water treatment plant.

Quarterman reiterated the need for South Georgia as a whole to be appreciative of the water it has and not take it for granted. 

He encourages local governments to take conservation seriously and move forward with laws and programs emphasizing water preservation.

"The city could do more to encourage people to think and act differently," he said. "Valdosta prides itself on being a forward-thinking city. It could certainly be doing more with renewable energy, rainwater capture, using less water for lawns. We're really fortunate to have the water resources we have. We have to preserve them and be careful about how we use it."

Thomas Lynn is a government and education reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256

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