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Commentary: Truce needed in water wars

When new governors take office, only 18 months will remain before judge's order takes effect

POSTED: December 5, 2010 12:30 a.m.
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Val Perry, executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association

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As Gov.-elect Nathan Deal prepares to assume his responsibilities for Georgia, he faces many challenges. Unemployment, the budget and economic growth clearly head the list.

However the issues of water supply and management also demand concentrated focus. Deal will take the lead in resolving the tri-state litigation (often referred to as the "water wars") between Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Resolution will establish direction for future development of Georgia. Here is an outline of the status of the litigation and its North Georgia implications.

The "water wars" have been going on for 20 years. In essence, Florida and Alabama want more water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. Although both the Flint and the Chattahoochee originate in Georgia, Florida and Alabama are demanding more water for their use, to Georgia's detriment.

In times of drought, as experienced in 2007-2008, water was taken from Georgia to ostensibly benefit some Florida mussels and sturgeon. Because 65 percent of the water on the ACF system is stored in Lake Lanier, in times of drought water flows in Florida are supported by draining Lanier. By sending substantial water south to Florida in a drought causes a major hardship for Lake Lanier and North Georgia. Water levels dropped 20 feet during the last drought, resulting in significant economic downturn. Water level recovery is also lengthened, since Lanier receives approximately 5 percent to 6 percent of the rainfall on the ACF system.

Lake Lanier, one of the state's finest natural resources, is a major economic engine for North Georgia. The lake supports 8 million annual visitors, 10 marinas, 10,000 docks and 25,000 to 35,000 recreational watercraft. Recreation (sailing, boating, fishing, vacationing, etc) has become one of the largest industries north of Atlanta, and Lake Lanier is a major reason that the surrounding counties have enjoyed outstanding population growth as well as new jobs and businesses.

The annual economic contribution from Lake Lanier is measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. This value contribution is dramatically reduced when the water level is lowered. Visitations drop due to potential safety concerns caused by hidden hazards just below the surface.

As the water wars have festered for years, several claims have been espoused by Florida and Alabama proponents that are myths. Here are two of the myths stated about Georgia:

1. The problem is that Atlanta development and growth results in taking water from downstream users. In fact, Florida's demand of 5,000 cubic feet per second during a drought is more than 10 times normal Atlanta consumption.

2. Georgia is wasteful of water resources. In fact, Georgia, led by the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, has made significant strides in conservation, education, general focus and infrastructure repair over the past several years. These investments and public awareness have resulted in reducing water consumption in Georgia.

The current status of the tri-state litigation is driven by Judge Paul Magnuson's July 2009 decision regarding the authorized purpose Lake Lanier. He ruled that the U.S. Congress only authorized Lanier for hydropower generation, flood control and navigation requirements. Water supply for people and businesses was not an authorized purpose even though approximately 4 million people receive their water from Lake Lanier.

Magnuson acknowledged that although Lanier has been providing water for Georgia residents and businesses for almost 60 years, new authorization is required by July 2012. He challenged the three states to agree on a water supply and management plan, and to obtain congressional authorization for water supply and recreation.

If this order cannot be accomplished by July 2012, then the Georgia withdrawals must revert to 1975 levels. That would be devastating for Atlanta and the other municipalities that use water from Lanier. For example, Gwinnett County would have to reduce its current withdrawals from more than 100 million of gallons per day to zero. Other municipalities will experience similar dramatic unfavorable consequences.

Magnuson's decision is being appealed by Georgia in the 11th District Court. A decision could take over a year.

In accordance with the court order, the three governors — Sonny Perdue of Georgia, Bob Riley of Alabama and Charlie Crist of Florida — agreed to solve the dispute on water usage and management. This represents the third time in the last eight years the governors have tried to solve the issue. On the previous attempts the talks have broken down.

This time there was hope for a resolution by December 2009. However the date has been deferred multiple times and it appears that an agreement will not be reached in 2010. At the beginning of 2011 each state will have a new governor, and there will only be 18 months remaining to comply with the judge's ruling.

Clearly, Deal has a significant challenge as he becomes an expert on "water war" issues. After the new governors achieve water supply and management agreements, Georgia's congressional delegation, headed by U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, will have to convince Congress to issue authorization for the water supply and recreation uses of Lake Lanier. Solving the water issues between the states represents a significant requirement for Georgia's future since water is essential for growth and economic stability. All of Georgia must rally in support of Gov.-elect Deal in his efforts to protect and conserve Lake Lanier for the future.

While Deal is focusing on the water wars, the state also needs to continue to focus on future water supply issues within Georgia. Conservation, alternate sources of water such as reuse strategies, building new reservoirs and tapping the Tennessee River are some of the ideas that must be explored. One suggestion would be to raise the normal pool level for Lanier 2 feet. This would provide a new supply of more than 26 billion gallons of water for minimal cost and rapid implementation. Deal could drive this initiative.

In summary, successful water supply and management plans need to be implemented for Georgia's' future. While there are many water initiatives under way in Georgia, the most significant and pressing issue is the resolution and water management agreement between the governors of Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

Val Perry is executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association.



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