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Leaders advise reservoirs are not the only answer

Panel addresses state’s Water Supply Task Force

POSTED: May 26, 2011 9:42 p.m.

New reservoirs aren't the immediate answer for Georgia's water needs, a panel of local government leaders said Thursday.

Though the state should begin investing in reservoir plans, officials need the short-term solution of reauthorizing Lake Lanier, added Kelly Randall, Gainesville's public utilities director and a member of the panel.

"Water purveyors have spent millions in recent years on the tri-state issue, and it's a big investment in continuing to use Lake Lanier," Randall said. "Whatever the state does, we don't need to send the message to the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), Alabama or Florida that any parts of our district don't need and won't rely on Lake Lanier in the long term."

Randall and others spoke to the technology and finance subcommittees of Georgia's Water Supply Task Force that met Thursday in Gainesville.

In January, Gov. Nathan Deal set aside $300 million for water supply projects and directed the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to develop the Governor's Water Supply Program to help local governments develop new water sources.

Before public utilities directors can move forward with plans, they need to hear an answer from the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Randall said.

Georgia is asking the court to overturn a July 2009 ruling by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson that gave the state three years to work out an agreement with neighbors Alabama and Florida — foes in the 20-year water dispute — or face not being able to withdraw water from the North Georgia reservoir.

"Let there be no mistake. We can't build reservoirs, do water supply projects or get out of the tri-state dispute just by building things," Randall said. "In 2003, water purveyors negotiated a price with power customers to buy storage capacity in Lake Lanier, and it can happen again. It's something we need to be thinking about."

As task force members create the criteria to award funding, they should note the financial, permitting and political challenges local governments face, the panelists said.

"Federal permitting is a tremendous challenge, and some type of state advocacy at the federal level may be worth studying," said Melvin Davis, a panel member and chairman of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners that has authorized the Bear Creek and Hard Labor Creek reservoir projects. "State permitting is likely the easiest part of the process, but mitigation and legal expenses are also high."

Investment and cooperation among several governments is likely the best solution, noted Tony Rojas, executive director of the Macon Water Authority and a panel member.

"The regional approach is the most viable and effective means," he said. "But it also leads to immediate difficulties with participation, management of operations, dynamics in the communities and the different needs at the time."

This includes the elected officials who make the decisions on large projects.

"There's the general unwillingness or lack of political will to invest in such expensive projects until you've reached a crisis stage, and then when the crisis occurs, you're looking at a process that could take well over a decade," Rojas said. "It's difficult to get politicians to make the decision until they are forced to, which may be human nature."

Part of the holdup could include recent changes in population growth, Randall noted.

"One of the biggest issues facing water utilities today is that we were growing like gangbusters until 2008 ... but now do I really want to build anything?" he said. "Unless the world changes drastically, we have the capacity we need on the ground already, so how do we know what to do and what's really going to happen with the court ruling?"

State and local officials should also consider the financial impact on customers when considering future projects, he said.

"The growth we were going to see to pay for debt has not materialized, and our council members have had to raise rates to pay for what we did years ago," Randall explained. "We need to realize that future projects will add to that debt service."

This includes considering the customers who would bear the burden of a rate increase.

"We have some poultry folks who produce 33 percent of our total revenue, and if we add a large rate increase, that's tens of thousands of dollars," Randall said. "In this economy, elected officials have difficulty doing that, and the poultry companies are also facing increasing diesel fuel prices and corn shortages. That would be a serious impact to this community."

 



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