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Our Views: Stagnant water

Ga. has done little to ease worries as new drought threatens Lanier

POSTED: November 20, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Nearly four years ago, Lake Lanier fell to its all-time low of 1,050.79 feet above sea level after a two-year drought. That was a low point in the tri-state water wars, two decades of battles among Georgia, Florida and Alabama over how to use water that flows from Lanier through the Chattahoochee River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, little has changed in our ongoing water crisis. A new drought and dropping water levels have put the issue back atop the state's priorities, where it should have stayed all along.

Georgians' attention to the issue has see-sawed over that time. It peaked in July 2009 when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that water use from Lanier was contrary to its original purpose. He set a 2012 deadline to curtail water intakes for Gainesville and metro Atlanta without an agreement from the states to share what flows downriver.

Hands were wrung in anxiety. Would North Georgia have the water needed to support its current population, much less future growth?

For a brief time, there was action. Conservation measures at the state and local levels included strict watering restrictions and other crackdowns on water wasters. Grand plans were drawn to fill new reservoirs and create new water sources, including the massive Glades Reservoir project in northeast Hall County.

But when the rains returned later in 2009 and Lanier returned to full pool, conservation concerns became less urgent. And the slow process of approving new reservoirs inched forward at glacial speed.

Last summer, a panel of judges overturned Magnuson's ruling, a decision later upheld by the full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, with the case likely headed to the Supreme Court. The decision brought sighs of relief across Georgia.

So everything was fine. Until Mother Nature reminded us that our water supply is not always dependent on judges, politicians or how often we turn on the sprinklers.

Below-average rainfall throughout the year again has Lanier's water levels dropping. The lake is now at 1,058 feet, 13 feet below full pool and only 8 feet above the all-time low. As the muddy banks again become exposed, the state has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to curtail water releases from Buford Dam, which may spark another round of lawsuits from Florida and Alabama.

After four years of talk and legal maneuvering, our water supply is again in danger with little done to solve the problem. Efforts deployed on various fronts to meet the threat have barely changed a thing.

Even with Magnuson's decision put aside, the states have not moved toward a deal to share water in the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. Even after all three changed governors, negotiations remain stalled as each state is looking out for its own interests first in the courts.

The corps was redrawing its original operating manuals for the lake, but court rulings have delayed that process. Any change to include water supply will require congressional approval, and because the Alabama and Florida delegations outnumber Georgia's, passage is not guaranteed. Congress isn't likely to address the problem further until there is a final Supreme Court ruling or an agreement among the states.

Conservation remains the choice of many to solve the problem, but efforts there have been spotty at best. We turned off the faucet while we brushed our teeth, let our yards go brown and stopped washing our cars for a while. But our old wasteful habits returned, for the most part, when the rains did.

As the area continues to grow, even the most judicious use of water may not be enough to provide enough for the millions who depend upon that single source. And with a weak economy already creating hardships, water will be a crucial element to sustaining a recovery.

The push to create new reservoirs continues statewide. Last week, the governor's Water Supply Task Force recommended using state money to advance worthwhile projects. Hall County is still trying to develop the Glades Reservoir despite the miles of environmental red tape included in the permitting process. And opposition remains strong, including an environmental watchdog group that included the plan on its "Dirty Dozen" list of threats to the state's waterways.

Meanwhile, the Cedar Creek reservoir in East Hall sits with 141 acres of usable water but no way to distribute it. Gainesville and Hall County are at odds over who controls it, agreeing only to put off mediation until the Magnuson ruling was settled.

Some groups advocate raising the full pool level of Lake Lanier to 1,073 feet to create additional storage. But that plan must jump through many of the same legal and environmental hoops, and remains dependent on having enough water to store.

Thus, if our water efforts over the last four years were a football game, Georgia has moved the ball from about the 20-yard-line to the 25. Only the legal victory has kept the state from facing an imminent crisis; every other means of developing a sound, long-term water policy remains unsettled.

As the lake creeps toward its record low, next year's session of the legislature needs to take the issue seriously with new conservation methods and a continued effort to create new reservoirs where feasible. Gov. Nathan Deal needs to engage his counterparts in Florida and Alabama in negotiations before the final court ruling, in case it doesn't end in our favor.

Meanwhile, we are reminded that while we look to the courts, Congress and our leaders for workable plans to save, store and share water, the final answer may come from the clouds producing enough of it to meet our needs.



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