Absent a successful appeal, a negotiated deal or an act of Congress, Gainesville faces the possibility of losing more than half of the water it now draws from Lake Lanier.
A July 17 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson gives Georgia three years to make a deal with Alabama and Florida over the use of the reservoir.
“This is the strongest deadline that we’ve ever had,” said Pat Stevens, manager for the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District.
The decision does not rule out Gainesville’s use of Lanier as a water source. It would, however, significantly limit now much water the city’s could take from the reservoir.
Magnuson’s ruling means Gainesville would have to return to its original withdrawal permit of 8 million gallons per day. That number is a throwback to the average water consumption the utility had in 1975, when it served fewer than one-third of the customers it has today, according to Jeremy Rylee, mapping coordinator for the utility.
By contrast, Gainesville’s 46,648 water customers used an average of 18.48 million gallons of the resource per day last month, according to reports compiled by the utility.
As to how the city utility plans to react to the ruling, Gainesville’s Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall still has no answers. He says the next step is not up to him.
“I need to talk to the (city) council about how we want to move forward, and I want to talk to the other water purveyors and our attorneys,” Randall said.
Nearly everyone involved has been waiting on a cue from Gov. Sonny Perdue on how to proceed. In a press conference Thursday, Perdue vowed to appeal the court decision.
On Friday, Randall would not comment on whether he thinks Georgia has a chance to win an appeal, but said the state’s best recourse is to follow the governor’s lead.
But spending more money on the lawsuit is a risk for the utility. If Magnuson’s decision is upheld, the utility faces a continuation of limited revenues once imposed by drought-era restrictions on water use. The city already has spent more than $900,000 on the lawsuit, according to Tina Wetherford, manager of the utility’s finance and administration division.
If in three years the ruling becomes a reality, Gainesville’s Public Utilities Department will have to cobble its resources from other reservoirs or learn to take water conservation to a whole new level.
Yet it is possible to squeeze out enough water for the community to use if Gainesville were not be completely reliant on Lanier in three years, Randall said.
The 143-acre Cedar Creek Reservoir, which currently lies unused in East Hall, could provide an added average of 7.3 million gallons of water per day to Gainesville’s water resources, Randall said.
The Public Utilities Department is “looking very hard” at bringing the reservoir online per a 2006 agreement with Hall County.
Randall says it is possible to build the pumps and pipelines necessary to make the reservoir useful by the deadline.
“I think that if you do try to plan for the worst-case eventuality, we need to have that Cedar Creek plant online,” Randall said.
Another reservoir in the making, Glades Reservoir, could provide another 6.4 million gallons of water a day to municipal water customers, Randall said. However, the planned reservoir, located in northeastern Hall County, is still in the permitting stages and at best wouldn’t be available for seven years.
Gainesville’s water customers could survive on the roughly 15 million gallons of water Cedar Creek and Lake Lanier could provide them each day, but it would require severe, drought-era conservation measures.
“I would point out that during the water restrictions last year, we were able to lower our monthly water use to 15.82 (million gallons per day),” Randall said.
Stevens says the court ruling provides more incentive to aggressively implement conservation measures the district has adopted in recent years. The plan is intended to reduce the district’s water demand by 20 percent.
“We’re going to proceed with the plans that we’ve drafted because water conservation is a big part of that,” she said.
Even with aggressive conservation and use of the Cedar Creek Reservoir, the ruling threatens to stifle any chance of the area’s growth in the near future, Randall admits. Whatever the outcome — negotiation, appeal, act of Congress or none — Randall said the ruling “heightens the need” for Glades Reservoir.
And while Stevens promotes the need for aggressive conservation, she is crossing her fingers for negotiated settlement between the states, which she said is the best option.
“I still think it’s possible to resolve it,” Stevens said. “We’ve got three years to try.”