On October 20, 2007, Governor Sonny Perdue declared a state of emergency in Georgia. He asked then President George Bush to declare the northern third of the state a major disaster area as it was crippled by a drought of extraordinary magnitude.
Caught up in the middle of these acts were commercial carwash operators whose businesses had been lumped with landscape companies, golf courses and other facilities which were considered outdoor water users. Something had to be done, and so, in October 2007, operators throughout the state started some movements of their own.
The first step was to formally organize. Georgia operators and vendor members of the Southeast Car Wash Association banded together to form a subsidiary of the Association, which they named Georgia’s Coalition of Car Washes. The group’s mission was to have commercial carwash facilities removed from the state’s outdoor water users list, which were subject to heavy restrictions during drought and water shortages.
Gary Dennis, managing member of Mammoth Holdings LLC which does business as Ultra Car Wash in Atlanta, GA, is the president of Georgia’s Coalition of Car Washes and is also on the International Carwash Association’s (ICA) Board of Directors as an operator member. He said the Coalition was primarily concerned with getting off the outdoor water user list at first because it was the most perplexing.
“We kept scratching our heads and saying ‘Why are we considered an outdoor user of water? Why would we be different than any other manufacturing entity that consumes water in its production process?’” Dennis recalled. “We’re tied into sewer systems and just because our building might be open at one end or the other, it doesn’t mean we’re an outdoor user of water.”
The Coalition also wanted to show state officials and the public that carwashes use very little water, and that many recycle and reclaim the wash water used. They decided to develop and propose a local certification program that could be used for carwashes and other industries.
At the time, several counties had already started to close carwashes that did not recycle more than 50 percent of the water used at the facility. Despite statistics that showed carwashes make up less than one percent of all water users commercially in the state, the group knew it was fighting an uphill battle.
In the same month that the coalition was formed and its website launched (www.gasaveswater.com), Governor Perdue encouraged the public to drive dirty vehicles as a “badge of honor.” He also asked for water municipalities across the state to further reduce their water consumption by 10 percent, although he did not specify how it was to be done and municipalities varied widely in their approach. In counties desperate to meet the new requirements, carwashes came under fire due to the misperception that they were a large user of water. The walk uphill seemed even steeper.
Within a month, the Coalition had elected board members and formed four committees to expand membership across the state, develop certification and educational programs, as well as form a strategy for pursuing an agenda in government affairs.
By December 2007, the group had completed those activities and created the Drought Management Plan and also hired Hobbs & Associates as a government affairs liaison.
In 2008, they began meeting with county commissioners and water authorities throughout the state. They brought in Bill Sartor, a former ICA president who had dealt extensively with drought/carwash issues in San Antonio, TX, for a meeting with Carol Couch, the head of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Department. Sartor introduced the certification concept he had started in Texas, and arranged for the two groups to coordinate on a seminar and workshop towards that goal.
“We also did our own analysis,” Dennis explained. The Coalition gathered the following pieces of data to present to the EPD:
“We went in there prepared to discuss how our industry really consumes practically no water at all in the grand scheme of things,” Dennis said. After reviewing the data the EPD was inclined to agree with them.
“They said to us that they had no interest in closing down carwashes because they were trying to save millions and millions of gallons of water and we just don’t come close,” Dennis recalled.
The next step
Convincing the EPD was the group’s first success, but the Coalition had more work in front of them. The EPD didn’t rule the municipalities, and so the group set out to meet with some of the larger counties. What they learned was disappointing. Some of the larger counties depended on water as a revenue generator and had little to no interest in the data the Coalition put before them. Instead, these counties made cuts across the board to meet the 10 percent reduction requirement.
“It was a nightmare,” Dennis said. “Everybody was on a different page.”
The group concluded that working with the individual counties would be a slow and frustrating process. Instead, they aimed for change at the state level.
As spring approached, the group worked on SB 466, a bill that would take commercial carwash facilities off the state’s outdoor water users list.
“Our whole premise was that we weren’t looking for special treatment,” Dennis stated. “We just wanted to make sure we weren’t in the same category as golf courses and landscape companies that would throw water on the ground to soak in. It’s just not what we do.”
The group threw a “carrot” into bill, which was a certification program. Since nearly all of the group’s members were conserving water in one way or another, they decided a certification system would be a boost to both their businesses and the state’s interests. The certificate would allow the individual carwash to be taken off the outdoor water list and would mean it was no longer subject to outdoor water restrictions.
In March, SB 466 passed the State’s Senate Department of Natural Resources Committee and was voted in by both the House and the Senate. The process was fairly simple and smooth, Dennis said, in large part because the Coalition had hired a lobbyist. He recommended other associations and groups consider doing the same.
More successful strategies
The irony of the group’s success with state legislators was that as soon as the bill passed, rain started to fall. But as Dennis pointed out, the state is a long way from the safe zone and much of their progress can be built upon in later years.
In fact, one of the group’s biggest wins wasn’t related to policy or legislation, but instead marked progress in education and endorsement. For instance, in October 2008, the city of Newnan, GA, recommended the public take their cars to professional carwashes as part of metro Atlanta’s “Clean Water Campaign.” The city had a note published in a local newspaper that explained the benefits of commercial carwashes that conserve and recycle water, as well as prevent it from contaminating local waterways.
“Several larger operators contacted the television stations and newspapers and did a pretty good job of getting the word out,” Dennis recalled. “The stories said how little water we used and that helped, I think.”
Dennis said there is also a movement to start banning home and charity parking lot washes throughout the state, but it has lagged in recent months. “Nobody’s really talking about drought right now because there’s so much rain that operators are actually hurting,” Dennis said.
In early June 2009, Couch announced that the drought was over in the state, although the Coalition continues to meet in a less formal manner. “There is still a lot more we could do,” Dennis said, “but it’s a lot like herding cats because as soon as the rain came, people lost interest.”
“We’ll probably keep it in tact, but we’re not really conducting business right now. It mostly just falls under SECWA now.”
It could happen to you
As positive as the outcome was in Georgia, Dennis did want to issue a warning that echoes one Sartor has been telling the industry about for years now: It can happen to you.
“We really need to call our industry to task a little bit; people need to be a bit more forward thinking,” he cautioned. “It’s hard to get people to focus on issues that aren’t on the front burner. And I think that’s why every time drought comes up and catches the next victim they’re always surprised because nobody really heeds the advice very well.”