Oct 01, 2002

Sprawling Out


Sprawling land development, characterized by strip malls,
parking lots and roads, may not only be polluting our water but also reducing
the amount available, according to a recent report.

A report released by American Rivers, the Natural Resources
Defense Council and Smart Growth America, reports that paved over land is
sending billions of gallons of water into streams and rivers as polluted
runoff, rather than into the soil to replenish groundwater. "Paving the
Way to Water Shortages: How Sprawl Aggravates Drought" investigated what
happens to water supplies when natural areas are replaced by roads, parking
lots and buildings.

The report estimates that in Atlanta, the nation's
most rapidly sprawling metropolitan area, recent sprawl development sends an additional
57 billion to 133 billion gallons of polluted runoff into streams and rivers
each year. This water would have otherwise filtered through the soil to
recharge aquifers and provide underground flows to rivers, streams and lakes.
The study also reviews the nation's next 17 most land-consuming metro

The actual impact on the public's water use varies
from city to city. On average, 40 percent of Americans get their water directly
from underground sources. In addition, groundwater supplies 50 percent of the
water in the rivers and lakes.

Not everyone agrees with the study's conclusions. Gary
Garczynski, president of the National Association of Homebuilders, said,
"The report does not consider many important variables that affect water
supply, including water management issues."

For example, some of the urban areas cited in the study,
such as Atlanta and Fort Worth, Texas, mostly rely on surface water for their
urban supply, according to Garczynski. Both areas have networks of reservoirs
that retain runoff from heavy rains.

However, counties across metro Atlanta already have started
buying land to combat problems. In June, Douglas County bought 800 acres around
the Dog River. The $5.6 million purchase is designed to protect the
county's reservoir. Protecting land around waterways prevents shoreline
erosion; therefore, the county will have less silt to dredge. Filtering
sediment to make water drinkable can cost millions.

Two years ago, the Douglasville-Douglas County Water and
Sewer Authority paid $1.4 million to dredge the Dog River of 80,000 cubic yards
of silt. The county no longer uses Bear Creek as a reservoir because it
contains too much silt.

The study suggests directing growth to communities where
people already live. Known as "smart growth," the plan usually
entails integrated planning incentives and infrastructure investments to
revitalize existing communities.

While Garczynski agrees that many communities should
consider adopting sensible, smart growth policies, he points out that developed
land covers just three percent of America's land area.

While America always has been the land of the great pioneer,
it might make some sense to take care of what already has been established.


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About the author

Bill Swichtenberg is Editorial Director and can be reached at [email protected].