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Emanuel: Where will we get our water?

Developing sustainable water plan is the best way to solve region's needs

POSTED: March 21, 2010 1:00 a.m.
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Ben Emanuel

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The latest plans advanced by Hall County leaders involving the proposed Glades Reservoir — to increase the size of the reservoir and connect it with the Cedar Creek Reservoir in East Hall — don't do much to improve the project from the perspective of environmental sustainability and taxpayer liability.

Questionable from the beginning because of its unclear mix of public and private benefits, as well as its impacts on the Chattahoochee River basin as a whole, the reservoir proposal has grown in size dramatically after Judge Paul Magnuson's ruling last July in the tri-state water war.

While it's logical for metro Atlanta communities to seek alternatives to Lake Lanier for water supply in the wake of the Magnuson ruling, the problem with the Glades Reservoir is that it doesn't really present an alternative; it would be a significant impoundment of water within the upper Chattahoochee basin, meaning the plans might run into legal hurdles under the Magnuson ruling, and will continue to raise flags with downstream users of the Chattahoochee.

These problems and many others were laid out clearly in a formal comment letter from the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division last September. UCR Executive Director Sally Bethea wrote that "it is evident that the applicant has planned and designed the reservoir with the amenity aspect in mind first, and that water supply is only an incidental benefit; the ‘water supply reservoir' is rather a mask for what regulatory agencies would not otherwise permit. This fact is more evident after one considers the range of alternatives for meeting the stated unmet water supply need, a meager 6.4 (million gallons per day), which ... can be secured by less environmentally damaging and less costly alternative means."

After all, reservoirs don't create water: they only impound it by damming streams (and leave a lot of it subject to loss through evaporation). This is why, in the months since the Magnuson ruling, the Georgia Water Coalition has advocated a strategy focusing on water efficiency - along with a goal of partial federal reauthorization of Lake Lanier for water supply and, possibly, well-planned new reservoirs in some locations in the future — as the best and most cost-effective approach to securing water supply for metro Atlanta.

Among other reasons, this is also why last year's new Glades Reservoir plan drew formal comment letters — all of them negative — from the state of Alabama, the state of Florida, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

It simply will not do to have various North Georgia municipalities pursuing their own massive water engineering projects without effective, comprehensive regional planning for future water needs. Hall County is currently searching for water customers for a supersized Glades Reservoir among other area counties.

However, one county's lining up letters of intent from its neighbors to demonstrate demand for a particular project within its own borders does not constitute effective regional planning. This is especially true when the project started out as an amenity lake for high-end residential developments, and probably still carries hopes for serving that purpose.

In light of all this, the plan to transfer Chattahoochee River/Glades Reservoir water to the Cedar Creek Reservoir in the Oconee River basin seems needlessly complex — an overly drastic response to the Magnuson ruling. Yes, the ruling itself was drastic in many ways, but it is not a reason for municipalities across North Georgia to engage in highly expensive engineering solutions.

Is the transfer plan an attempt to circumvent the Magnuson ruling while still withdrawing water from the Chattahoochee? Is its goal to achieve a partial cost savings on water treatment while the price tag on the whole plan balloons because of the Glades Reservoir's extra-large size? What exactly is this proposal's purpose?

The taxpayers and ratepayers of Gainesville and Hall County should ask hard questions about the expense of this plan before their elected officials proceed further. Those in neighboring counties might well do the same. Thoughtful and sustainable regional water planning would benefit the environment, downstream users, and local taxpayers and ratepayers the most.

Ben Emanuel is the Oconee Projects Coordinator for Altamaha Riverkeeper Inc.



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