Leaders of Georgia’s largest river advocacy groups on Thursday called on the state’s gubernatorial candidates to take a new approach to the state’s struggle over water supply: Do a little less suing and reservoir planning and seek instead to do a lot more sharing.
Addressing a group of reporters at Trees Atlanta’s Kendeda Center, representatives of various Riverkeeper groups said resolving the state’s water issues would require the state’s leadership to respect the needs of downstream communities, negotiate with Alabama and Florida in an open manner and implement more aggressive water conservation and efficiency measures than the state’s recently passed water stewardship bill.
Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper group, called the need to secure a reliable supply “one of the most pressing challenges facing our next governor.”
She said voters need to know where candidates stand before heading to the polls on Tuesday.
Bethea stopped short of making an endorsement, however.
Bethea and other environmental leaders unveiled a plan they called “Charting a New Course for Georgia’s Water Security” two days before the anniversary of Judge Paul Magnuson’s 2009 ruling that Georgia had, for the most part, illegally tapped Lake Lanier as a water supply.
The ruling was a blow to the state’s interests in 20 years of litigation between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over the use of the water flowing from the reservoir. It left the state with the option of appealing the ruling, negotiating an agreement with Florida and Alabama over its use or having Congress reauthorize the lake by July 2012.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has appealed the ruling, and has promised to work on a water-sharing agreement until his last day in office.
“By most accounts, negotiations in the tri-state water wars are failing,” Bethea said. “And unless we change course soon, we will be left high and dry in 2012.”
While the group said it supported reauthorizing Lake Lanier to be used for water supply, it said more had to be done in the way of finding long-term solutions and developing trust with downstream communities.
“We do have the tools to end this war, to bring fairness and to bring equity to all users within the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin if only the political resolve to use them can emerge,” Bethea said. “There can be no win for one state over the other two. The only true win is one that meets the real needs of all three states and all water users, now and in the future.”
Joe Cook, executive director of the Rome-based Upper Coosa Riverkeeper, said little has been accomplished in more than 20 years of litigation.
He spoke to the need for Georgia to show respect for the needs of downstream communities, calling for regulation of interbasin transfers and the adoption of water policies that protect wildlife and downstream neighbors.
Cook called interbasin transfers “grand theft water.”
“The governor that is willing to make a stand on interbasin transfers, is willing to protect downstream communities is the governor that is going to be best positioned to solve our conflicts with Alabama and Florida,” Cook said.
The Upper Coosa Riverkeeper also said the state’s future administration should ensure long-term funding for the state’s water planning districts and reorganize them to make the districts reflect river basin boundaries instead of political boundaries, Cook said.
“We’re in this water war because we have political boundaries that are dividing us,” Cook said.
The groups also said Georgia’s next governor should take a stand and reject an agreement the governors of the three states have to keep negotiations over water sharing secret.
Instead, the next governor should seek that Magnuson allow those negotiations to be conducted in the open, with all the stakeholders at the table, said Gordon Rogers, executive director of the Flint Riverkeeper group in Albany. He said a deal could be reached in secret, but it wouldn’t solve the conflict.
“We feel very strongly that a process of revealing what’s going on and being more inclusive will lead to a better conclusion,” Rogers said. “...I fully understand what it’s like to need confidentiality in a real estate deal or in a piece of litigation, but this is way bigger than that and not all of the people that are affected by these decisions are at the table.”
Seeking resolution will also mean metro-Atlanta will have to learn to conserve and use its water more wisely, Bethea said.
Bethea said the state’s recent water conservation bill was the most comprehensive attempt to date, but called it merely a moderate step toward addressing a need to fix leaks, retrofit plumbing in all buildings and conserve the resource.
Georgia’s next governor, she said, should be committed to taking larger steps toward cutting metro-Atlanta’s demand for water and energy, instead of planning more reservoirs and energy plants.
Bethea called the need to reach an agreement over water “dire,” and said she hoped all the state’s gubernatorial candidates will embrace the plan revealed Thursday.
“This is not a time for baby steps,” Bethea said. “This is a time for bold plunges to get what we need for the economic prosperity of this region.”