By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Area leaders: Reservoirs are still needed
Environmental groups oppose new water projects after last weeks Lake Lanier court ruling
Placeholder Image

When a federal judge three years ago declared Georgians’ use of Lake Lanier as a source of drinking water wasn’t legal, the reactions were clear.

Within months of the July 2009 ruling, Hall County officials put the brakes on a permit application for a proposed reservoir in North Hall. At the time, their designs for Glades Reservoir would have supplied the county with some 6.7 million gallons of water per day.

County officials returned several months later with a proposal that would yield more than 10 times the drinking water.

Georgia officials, too, were on the offensive as a direct result of the ruling, passing an extensive law requiring varying degrees of water conservation in the 2010 legislative session.

Gov. Nathan Deal, in one of his first acts in office in 2011, promised to spend some $300 million in state bond money on water supply projects before the end of his term.

But now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that overturned Judge Paul Magnuson’s ruling, opinions vary on the need to build new reservoirs.

Deal’s chief of staff Chris Riley told The Times last week that the governor’s plans to spend $300 million haven’t changed.

Hall County officials remain committed to obtaining permits for Glades Reservoir at the same yield, two of them said this week.

But environmental groups who have long advocated for more conservation measures over new reservoirs say there’s no reason state and local officials should keep pursuing new water sources that were previously justified by the uncertainty surrounding Lanier’s water.

“It seems clear that we don’t need to rush to build a lot more reservoirs in some effort to replace or supplement Lake Lanier’s water,” Ben Emanuel, associate director of water supply for American Rivers in Atlanta, said after the high court decided last week not to hear appeals filed by Alabama and Florida.

Groups like American Rivers and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper are appealing to a fiscally conservative stance long held by the Republicans.

Sally Bethea, executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, told The Times last week that with the ruling, there was no longer “a legitimate need for taxpayers to pay anything to build more reservoirs.”

Ben Emanuel, the associate director of water supply for American Rivers in Atlanta, also talks of the projects’ costs.

“We always want to see projects that make the most sense, given that we’re spending the public’s money on them,” he said.

State and local officials say that Georgia still faces uncertainty for water supply despite the legal victory. Though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now has the authority to consider water supply as a federally-recognized use for Lake Lanier, no one yet knows how much of the reservoir’s water will be designated for that purpose.

“You’ll find that the people who are promoting Glade Farm (reservoir) will continue to promote it, because none of us know what the end result’s going to be,” said Kelly Randall, head of the Gainesville Public Utilities Department, the largest municipal water provider in Hall County.

The city department relies solely on Lake Lanier to supply its customers. But if access to Lanier were limited or city officials needed more water, the city plans to buy water from Glades.

“Gainesville has looked to Glade Farm at whatever point that Lake Lanier’s supplies are exhuasted,” Randall said. “And that hasn’t changed. The time frame in which that my occur may be different.”

Corps officials will make that decision as they update the water control manuals for the larger Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, of which Lanier is a part.

In Dawson County, two reservoir projects are in the works. Etowah Water and Sewer Authority head Brooke Anderson said one of them, the proposed Shoal Creek Reservoir, could potentially benefit from the corps’ decision.

The 2,000-acre Shoal Creek Reservoir could provide as much as 100 million gallons of water to the region each day.

The reservoir would span a 10,000-acre tract in Dawson Forest the city of Atlanta has owned since the early 1970s. The project still needs approval and some sort of partnership from Atlanta, but officials have already begun applying for state loans.

Anderson, too, believes that the need for more water will exist, no matter the corps’ allocation for water supply in Lanier.

“Since the Supreme Court has determined that the corps has the power and rights to determine water supply maybe there is some closure on the horizon,” he said. “With that closure brings the ability for people to truly start planning for future water supply, and to bring stability to the region and the state.”

Hall Commissioner Scott Gibbs, who represents the area of the county where Glades reservoir would be built, said nothing that happened last week diminishes the need for the reservoir.

Glades, if approved, would be an 850-acre lake fed by Flat Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River upstream of Lanier. As the proposal stands now, it would serve as a holding tank that could supplement the county’s water supply by 72.5 million gallons daily.

Gibbs supposes that even if the corps fulfills Georgia’s request to allocate some 290 million gallons of Lanier’s water each day for drinking purposes, Alabama and Florida will challenge the allocation in court.

“If anybody thinks that Florida and Alabama are done with this matter, I think they’ll be mistaken,” Gibbs said. “I think the next court challenge will be on allocation ... if it doesn’t fall into the realm where Alabama and Florida think it should be, they’re going to sue (the corps) for it.”

But one of the most repeated arguments for moving ahead with reservoirs is been growth.

“The real issue is not if additional waters are going to be needed — it’s when they’re going to be needed,” Randall said.

State lawmakers are also using the argument to make the case for continuing to spend taxpayers’ dollars on water supply projects.

Building Glades may not need to be as high of a priority for the county with the Supreme Court’s decision, said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Flowery Branch. He said scaling back Glades “may be the answer.”

But he’s not for scrapping the project completely.

“We’re currently the third fastest growing state in the country,” Miller said. “Jobs are important, and no one is going to move a company here and create jobs here if there’s not drinking water.”

Hall officials, in their proposal for Glades, say they anticipate the county’s population will grow to some 800,000 residents by 2060.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, says he thinks the projected population is likely to become reality, given an economic recovery.

“We don’t really have any other source,” of water to support that growth, Rogers said.

Emanuel, the associate director of water supply for American Rivers, doesn’t buy that.

“No matter what sort of future growth scenario we’re looking at, relying on our existing infrastructure, including Lake Lanier, is going to be — by far — the most cost effective way to ensure water supply throughout North Georgia and metro Atlanta,” he said.

Chelsea Thomas of The Times regional staff contributed to this story.

Friends to Follow social media