CUMMING — In just a few weeks, Cumming’s $14 million water project will be complete, giving the city the ability to withdraw up to 105 million gallons per day from Lake Lanier.
The project will provide enough daily water to meet growth in Cumming and Forsyth County for at least the next 25 years, though it may be allowed to do so for only a fraction of that time.
A U.S. District Court judge recently ruled that Georgia has three years to work out an agreement with Florida and Alabama as a result of their tri-state water war that’s spanned nearly two decades.
If a deal can’t be reached, and if Congress doesn’t intervene, Georgia risks losing much of its ability to withdraw water from Lanier.
City and county officials, however, remain optimistic.
"You can’t just turn the water supply off for the millions of people that live in the metro Atlanta and North Georgia region," said Jon Heard, city water department director.
"I believe it’s very possible that this debate will last for the next 30 years and there will not be a resolution for some time to come. But all the while, the city will continue to withdraw water from the lake without any interruptions."
The lake wasn’t built to supply water. But in 1975, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed Gainesville and Buford to withdraw 10 million gallons of water per day since their previous intake structures, in the Chattahoochee River, were inundated by the lake’s construction.
In the early 1970s, the corps began allowing other cities to withdraw water on an interim basis. A few years later, Cumming received its permit from the corps.
The city had used well water until the late 1940s, when it built a plant to draw water from Sawnee Creek. In 1969, the city expanded its intake to include Bald Ridge Creek.
It was 1979 before the city began using lake water via its first intake pipe. In 1996, the city increased its withdrawals from Lanier. In a few weeks, the latest expansion will be functional.
Heard said a state permit allows the city to pull more water than was originally agreed to by the corps. That water supplies all city and county residents.
The county, which does not have a permit to pull water from the lake, has a purchase agreement with the city through May 2012.
Charles Laughinghouse, chairman of the county commission, said the county will continue to pursue its own withdrawal permit, as well as other options, despite the judge’s ruling.
"We’re not sitting idly by," he said. "We’re looking at wells, we’re looking at the Etowah River, we’re looking at the Chattahoochee River, we’re looking at the reservoirs — we are trying to leave no stone unturned.
"Forsyth County cannot tie its future to Lake Lanier."
Laughinghouse agreed with the judge’s use of the term "draconian" to describe the ruling. In fact, he said, the judge was "being very kind when he said it is a ‘draconian’ decision."
"It will essentially destroy the economy of the Atlanta region," he said. "I am not so sure that just the threat of that will not have an extremely serious consequence on the economy of the Atlanta region and the economic recovery.
"You kind of have to wonder what major headquarters or what major company is going to want to locate here with that threat hanging over their head."
Laughinghouse, along with Heard, Cumming Mayor H. Ford Gravitt and several other municipal officials throughout the state met with Gov. Sonny Perdue this week about the ruling.
Gravitt said about 100 people attended.
"We feel good about everything after talking to the governor," Gravitt said. "You can’t roll the clock back and say that we’re going to go back to the level of water withdrawal that was done 25, 30 years ago. That just can’t happen."
Gravitt noted the city, along with other local governments, has invested a lot of money in drawing water from the lake. He said he was alarmed by the judge’s ruling, though he did know that drinking water was not the reason the lake was built.
"But at the same time, over the years things changed, and obviously everyone had to use it for their water reservoir," he said. "We feel like the improvements that have been made and the investments the city has made, along with the other cities and counties, is going to enhance the ability for not only us, but for the others to maintain the withdrawal.
"We’re going to have water."