A 2003 United Nation report made a grim prediction: More than half of humanity will be living with water shortages within 50 years. That same year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said 36 states expected to suffer water shortages in the subsequent decade. Those predictions have come to pass for many parts of the country, only they've happened a lot sooner than officials were expecting and in states not normally associated with water problems.

While Western states struggle with what has been a persistent problem for decades, many states in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast are now facing some level of drought. Meanwhile, Florida is again encountering water shortages after overcoming a dry period from 1998 to 2001. What's different about this drought compared with the previous one, however, is that the demand for water is much higher, and so are the stakes. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in Tallahassee, says, for example, that the state's population “is expected to increase to nearly 24 million and water use is predicted to increase by 22 percent by 2025.”

The Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia might be having the worst time of all. “We are in a Level 4 drought,” Janet Ward, director of public affairs for Atlanta's Department of Watershed Management, says. “It's the most serious drought you can be in. Our reservoirs are running dry.”

RUNNING ON EMPTY: Depending on whom you talk to, Georgia's Lake Lanier has either days or months  before it runs dry.
RUNNING ON EMPTY: Depending on whom you talk to, Georgia's Lake Lanier has either days or months before it runs dry.

Indeed. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has seen new record-low daily stream flows at 13 of Georgia's rivers—in some cases the lowest daily stream flows in 110 years. As rainfall deficits have been grossly below yearly averages, Atlanta has imposed water restrictions on normal activities such as watering lawns or washing cars. Add to this equation metro-Atlanta's explosive growth over the past 10 years, and the city is on the cusp of potential disaster. “If we don't get some rain here in the next four or five months, it's going to be a crisis,” Tom Krobot, CEO of Atlanta-based Ashton Woods Homes, says.

Of course, the question on everyone's mind is who or what bears the responsibility for the water shortages—aside from the lack of rain. “There are multiple causes,” says Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project, a nonprofit group that promotes the preservation and sustainable use of fresh water. “In the West, cities have been growing at a rapid rate in areas where water is not available. In the East, we have had rapid growth too, but it is wetter here, so the issue is how we manage water.”

ROOT CAUSES ROOT CAUSES While environmentalists say over-development in Atlanta has led to unsustainable water demand, developers and the city of Atlanta dispute this. “Since 2000, Atlanta's Department of Watershed Management has added 13,000 new customers but our daily average demand has gone down 6 million gallons,” says Ward. Simon J. Tuohy, a development associate with Atlanta-based Urban Realty Partners, admits that development needs to slow down some, but he believes there should be no restrictions on building. “Construction will slow on its own, as it has already,” Tuohy adds. Instead, a combination of sustainable residential development and projects with water-conserving features will go a long way toward easing some of the water issues, he says.

Urban Realty Partners (along with Savannah-based sustainable developer Melaver) took such an approach for Oakland Park, a 65-unit loft project in Atlanta. In addition to a wide range of environmentally friendly products and building systems, the project will be 30 percent to 40 percent more water efficient than an average building. The units will have dual-flush toilets and water-saving appliances. Cisterns will collect rainwater for irrigation. Moreover, the grounds will have minimal landscaping with drought-resistant shrubs and plants. “More builders should do projects that have these features, but they cost a little bit more money,” Tuohy says. “Still, it is the right thing to do, and we need more developers to step up and be leaders.”

Douglas LeComte, a drought specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, says recent rains have relieved drought conditions in some parts of the South and parts of the Midwest, but he sees “little or no relief” for Georgia, Alabama, or the Carolinas. North Carolina, in particular, is still having acute problems. The USGS observed some of the lowest average August stream flows in over 100 years at some monitoring stations.

“We are under a series of water restrictions that have grown severe over time,” says Jonathan Philips, senior director of Cherokee Investment Partners, a Raleigh, N.C.–based company that specializes in sustainable redevelopment of brownfield sites. There is no outdoor watering allowed—even at the governor's mansion—and some parts of the state have instituted fines or elimination of water service for individuals who violate water restrictions, he says.

Cherokee Investment says it anticipated water shortages a long time ago and decided to start taking proactive approaches to deal with them; water conservation is now a huge part of its developments. The company is building the Mainstream GreenHome demonstration project in the hopes that more production builders will embrace green building and water-saving features in their developments.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA, Raleigh, NC.