In a post I wrote in August, I described drought induced water restrictions in Atlanta. At the time, we were in a severe or extreme drought. Now, they call it a “hundred year” drought, a term with a decidedly biblical ring to it

As a metro area Atlanta has about 5 million people, and the numbers keep climbing. As with most boom towns, the number of people quickly out-calibrated the capacity of the infrastructure, and our water supply is no exception.

We are told that we may run out of drinking water in 90 days and water for other uses about 30 days thereafter. Even though that end date is not far off, it’s hard to fathom 5 million people unable to drink, shower, clean or flush.

The ticker tape at the bottom of our newscasts offers drought related information — much of which isn’t new, although I was piqued by the announcement I saw last night that neighbors are beginning to report on their ban-violating neighbors. Believe it or not, despite the warnings, car washes are still operating. Conventions are being held (imagine all the extra glasses of water, showers, flushes, etc. that even one mid-sized conference entails), life in many ways is carried on status quo.

Yet, life is also beginning to take on an acrid smell, as if the sleeve of our polyester shirt is singed and has begun to smoke. We are cells dividing into smaller, damaged cells.

There are those who recognize the seriousness of the situation and want to take decisive, strong action right NOW. There are those who want to phase in solutions. There are those who are oblivious or indifferent, who don’t plan any changes in their MO.

Georgia’s lieutenant governor spins the story that the Army Corps of Engineers are at fault, that despite the threat to human life, they adhere to federal mandates to release water downstream as required to sustain an endangered lake mussel. That’s not the main reason they release the water, by the way. There are communities downstream, in Alabama and Florida, who depend upon this water too. Atlanta’s mayor is more reasonable. She wants conservation measures imposed. It’s good that this is the direction she supports, but it may be too late. If there’s no more water, conservation is moot. In counties and towns where the councils have moved quickly to impose some sort of measures on the community, residents fight back citing the costs of the measures are unaffordable for most people.

On the black sky of my mind is a smattering of dark stars that I can’t constellate, all the points joined into something explicable.

As a child I lived near Three Mile Island. Not on top of it, mind you, but within the evacuation zone. During the “meltdown incident”, my parents were likely more frightened than they let on. Myself, although frightened by what was happening, couldn’t genuinely grasp the stakes, the dreaded thereafter. There were the neighbors that high-tailed it out of there at the first warning. There were people, my family included, who took the wait and see approach. This was not my idea; it was my father’s. And even though the incident at TMI didn’t unfold into the predicted disaster, I still shake my head over my father’s hubris, for this meltdown in the water supply, has crystallized an understanding of the fallout that — thank heaven — eluded me as a child.

I remember the day that bombs were first dropped on Baghdad. I watched the coverage, stupefied, distraught, teary, unable to fully comprehend what it must have been like for the people in that city as everything they knew fell apart. All across this country, though, stocks were sold, cars taken in for service, arrangements firmed up for birthday parties, catty comments made about coworkers. Surreal.

Last week I watched a program about a long list tribe from Peru. It was thought that they had disappeared sometime between 560 and 650 AD because of famine or starvation. Scientists found that they experienced 30 years of extreme drought followed by 30 years of incessant rains. In the end, it was discovered that such extremes contributed to the demise of their society, but it was a rending of their belief system that proved the last straw. For thousands of years they had relied on human sacrifices to appease the Gods who would in turn provide them with proper seasons, weather in balance. Sixty years of imbalance turned their belief system upside down and their culture inside out. In the end, they warred amongst themselves and ultimately splintered their separate ways.

I fear the apocalyptic threat of this water crisis; I fear its nuclear tinge. I try to wrap my mind around the questions of “what if?”, “what’s next”, “where will we go?” and I come up empty handed.

What else is there to do but go about our lives. The other night we met friends at sports bar. Our car was valeted, and then we discussed the news du jour over chicken finger platters and Hennepin drafts, a hockey game on half of the plasma televisions around us and the Cleveland-Boston AL championship game on the others. We chattered about how chaos might be unstoppable as we don’t have the military resources at home to allay widespread panic from escalating into desperate violence. We bantered about which politician was right and what governing body was wrong. We gossiped, cracked jokes, mused about the future. It was like a meal of grilled fear sandwiched between a bun of incomprehension. Even with a looming crisis, I suppose, we have to carry on. There is no clear, decisive alternative direction for the individual to shift towards. Yes, we scale back on the laundry and substitute a courtesy wash at the sink for a shower every other day, but we will also hit the Macy’s shoe sale and sweep the leaves from the driveway.

Frankly, this experience has moved me a step closer to understanding how a belief in cosmic justice cements itself. I’m a giant step closer to proclaiming that we’re paying for everything we’ve gotten away with water-wise for the past 10-12 years. We have in Metro atlanta been an indifferent, self-absorbed people and still are. In many ways, we’ve brought this crisis upon ourselves.

What else is there for me to do but remain committed to conservation, to doing my part, remain optimistic that the rains will return and replenish the lakes, stroll down to the shops and buy that cook book I’ve been hankering, make a batch of Squash Buttermilk soup (It calls for chicken broth, not water), and in between sort out an exit strategy. Because, where there’s no optimism left, there’s despair. That’s the tipping point I fear most.

Melissa, 38, Atlanta, USA

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