From 1998 until 2003, with a brief respite in 2000-2001, North Georgia suffered through a historic drought. The term “historic,” in this instance, is used by weathermen to describe a drought of unusually long duration, one of the three measures of a drought. Each year drought kills more people than all other weather phenomenon combined including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and lightning. While the regional impact of a long-term drought is massive, in North Georgia’s case, the drought’s effect was mitigated, simply because of technology, mostly the dams built by the Corps of Engineers and others. Earlier droughts, however, did not have the benefit of these dams and had a “historic” impact on North Georgia.
The Civil War ended in May, 1865, leaving the South a devastated shell of its former self. When William Tecumseh Sherman left North Georgia on his March to the Sea in November, 1864, he tore up the Western and Atlantic Railroad from Dalton to Atlanta. The rails from Allatoona Pass north were stored in Chattanooga, but the rails from Allatoona Pass south became knots of twisted steel alongside the roadbed. In April, 1865 (before the Weather Bureau existed), North Georgia entered a drought cycle. Since it was impossible to transport food into the affected area, the drought took a toll in human life.
Droughts in 1903-1905 and 1924-1927 also had major impacts on the area. The drought beginning in 1903 saw the mass immigration of African-Americans to urban areas in north Georgia. Socio-economic development of the black community started in the early 1880’s, but when the 1903 drought struck, farm jobs dried up as quickly as the fields. The cities attracted these workers for a number of reasons. First, while agricultural jobs were hard to find, workers were needed on a daily basis in Atlanta and other cities. For African-Americans this meant low or semi-skilled jobs, since whites had long laid claim to the higher-paying skilled labor work. Second, these jobs paid more than field-work, normally offsetting the increased living costs. Third, Atlanta had a well-developed public transportation system. Finally, there was an element of safety in the city that did not exist in rural Georgia.
During World War I great technological advances were made in the agricultural industry. As a result, veterans returning to field jobs had fewer jobs to return to. The drought that struck in 1924 – 1927 affected a wider area than simply North Georgia, affecting the Coosa River and Altamaha Basin as well at the Chattahoochee River. The Weather Bureau (today’s National Weather Service) reported the lowest stream levels ever recorded in north Georgia in July-September, 1925, stating that the drought not only affected agricultural operations, but industrial operations as well. Combined with the ongoing devastation from the boll weevil migration from rural Georgia to urban Georgia reached epic proportions. The impact of this drought, plus other natural events, sent the Georgia economy into a depression well before the rest of the United States.
One of the advances that came into its own in the 1920’s was the agricultural extension agent. These government employees became a mainstay of the rural community when the program was expanded following World War I. Among the advances advocated by these agent was planting drought-resistant crops and not depending on a single cash crop. Farmers who had cooperated with the agents tended to do better during the drought of 1924 – 1927.
Although the drought of 1930-1935 had little long term impact on north Georgia, it contributed to the ongoing economic problems throughout the state and the country as a whole, and was still on the minds of north Georgia when the drought of 1938-1944 struck the upper Coosa River basin and the Chattahoochee River basin. It was this drought that convinced politicians to move towards massive hydroelectric projects that would supply power and keep water available to constituents throughout long dry spells. The first such dam, Allatoona, was begun in 1941 and completed after World War II.
One of the key supporters of hydroelectric power in the United States was Senator Richard B. Russell. It was said of Russell that he never met a hydroelectric project he didn't like. A highly respected member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Russell's opinion mattered in passing most projects from 1936 until his death in 1971.
It would be 15 years for the next drought to strike North Georgia. In the northeastern portion of the state an 18-month dry spell. Part of a larger, statewide drought that lasted from 1950 to 1957, the low rainfall affected the length of time it took to fill Lake Lanier for the first time.
Many North Georgia residents remember the drought of 1987-1988 that saw Lake Lanier reach its lowest levels since it was filled. Streamflows touched the lows reached during the 1925 drought. 10 years later Georgia entered a historic drought that lasted nearly 5 years, from 1998 until 2003.
Beginning in late 2006 a second drought struck North Georgia, on the heels of the earlier 5-year drought. River levels plummeted, causing lakes to fill up more slowly when water was released. Georgia politicians chose to concentrate on the Army Corps of Engineers for there continuous flow requirement for Lake Lanier as a reason for the looming water shortage during the severe drought.
Since the continuous flow requirement helps send water downstream to Alabama and Florida, those states launched a federal review process to ensure a equitable division of the water from the Chattahoochee River. The states were already in a battle over an earlier agreement made between Georgia and the federal government about water usage rights for Lanier. When Georgia lost both the case and the appeal they tried to take the matter to the Supreme Court, which would not hear the case.
When Lake Lanier was created in 1950, the continuous flow requirement was established at 6.5 cubic feet per second to maintain the fragile riverine eco-systems along the Chattahoochee River. These systems keep the fish and animal life healthy, clean the river of naturally occurring particulate matter, and dissipate the water pollution contributed by major cities like Atlanta. Rather than acknowledge the mistakes of earlier politicians (the unbridled growth of the city of Atlanta combined with a complete lack of regard for water conservation methods that today are in effect in most major metropolitan areas), the state chose to make the Corps of Engineers the scapegoat.
In an unusual move, on November 6, 2007, Governor Sonny Perdue called a prayer meeting at the Capitol. By this time Perdue had begun talking about the need for water conservation as well, but to call attention to the dire straits Georgia was in, he chose to say a prayer that garnered national attention.
In 2008 legislators stumbled on a unique solution to Georgia's water problem. They discovered that the original land survey done in 1818 of the Georgia border with Tennessee was roughly a mile wrong (historians had known this for at least a century). "A RESOLUTION creating the Georgia-North Carolina and Georgia-Tennessee Boundary Line Commission; and for other purposes" became law on May 14, 2008. If the line is adjusted Georgia will control a small portion of Lake Nickajack and its ample water supply.