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When historic drought conditions seriously threaten living conditions in a significant part of the country, institutional and commercial facilities of all kinds feel the heat.
Such was the case in Georgia in 2007, when record dry conditions made for difficult living conditions in the Atlanta area. For one of the first times in U.S. history, a major city was forced to take drastic steps to keep from running out of water.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was no exception to a state mandate that required public water system providers to reduce their use by 10 percent. In response to the conditions and the mandate, the airport began a major water-conservation initiative in early 2008 that included a significant retrofit of the airport's restrooms, which serve more than 90 million passengers a year.
As the drought eased and conditions returned to normal in 2009, the airport's water-conservation efforts continue to expand, with additional initiatives such as rainwater harvesting and low-water use landscaping, aimed at reducing energy savings 20 percent by the year 2020.
"We've always been good stewards of our resources," says Sharon Douglas, the airport's sustainability manager. "We were looking for (projects) to save us water and money, even before the drought. We try to implement the latest and greatest technology that has the lowest impact on our resources."
The drought conditions were so severe in the southeast in 2007 that the state's governor asked residents to take part in vigils to pray for rain, and the general public was concerned that Lake Lanier, the main source of water for the Atlanta area, would dry up.
The airport is one of the state's top facilities in terms of water use, so officials were ready to do their part. In the process, they realized the time was right for the airport to make a long-term commitment to a sustainable water savings plan.
Merely because of the size of the facility and the constant traffic, a restroom retrofit is a massive effort. It sits on 4,700 acres of land, including buildings and runways. The concourses and international and domestic terminals occupy 130 acres, or 6.8 million square feet — an expanse larger than the Pentagon. The restrooms must endure the constant traffic flow of more than 250,000 daily airline passengers, in addition to 58,000 people employed at the airport.