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What new storage contract, recent ruling could mean for Gainesville water department
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Jacob Simmons performs a draw down test to check the operation of one of the chemical pumps at the Riverside water treatment plant. Photo courtesy city of Gainesville.

Gainesville has gotten some positive news lately on the water front.

A contract with the Army Corps of Engineers to allow Georgia to pay $60 million for permanent water storage on Lake Lanier could come “any day now,” Richard Dunn, Environmental Protection Division director, told a Gainesville audience on Nov. 21.

And Dec. 11, a federal judge recommended that the U.S. Supreme Court rule in favor of Georgia in the decadeslong battle over water consumption in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin that starts above Lake Lanier.

Water storage contracts involving Lake Lanier originally ignited water litigation between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

The 254,170 acres of storage space in Lanier would meet the state’s current and projected 2050 municipal and industrial water supply, Dunn said.

Each of the providers, including Gainesville, would pay for their proportionate share of the water supply, Dunn said.

The only formal contracts concerning water supply date to the late 1950s, when Lake Lanier was created, with Gainesville allowed to draw 8 million gallons of water per day and Buford allowed to withdraw 2 million gallons, he said.

Under the new agreement, which was still pending as of last week, the 8 million gallons is still in place but as a net withdrawal — or gross withdrawals from the lake minus returns to the lake.

“If the net is over 8 million, we pay the Corps for the additional water,” Linda MacGregor, director of the Gainesville Department of Water Resources, said. “When the storage contract is in place, we’ll pay (the overage) in a different manner.”

The projected 2050 demand for Gainesville-Hall County is 32 million gallons per day, which means Gainesville would need to return 24 million gallons or pay for additional water.

Currently, the city withdraws 17-23 million gallons and returns 10-12 million.

Gainesville’s allocation is estimated to cost the city $3 million to $4 million, which would be paid from the city’s water and sewer funds, MacGregor said.

In the Supreme Court case, Florida has claimed it has suffered economic and ecological harm from Georgia’s “overconsumption of water” in the ACF River Basin.

Florida is asking the court to freeze Georgia's water usage at current levels in the ACF to 2050 and approve even tighter controls during droughts. The basin begins northeast of Lake Lanier and flows southwest past Atlanta into the Gulf of Mexico in Florida's Panhandle.

Georgia contends that Georgia's water usage is far less than Florida's estimates and that the state has failed to meet one of the case's central questions.

The issue now goes to the Supreme Court for its consideration, but at least one water wars observer believes Georgia may prevail.

“This (recommendation) likely sounds the death knell for Florida’s nearly three-decades-long attack on Georgia’s water use in the ACF,” said Clyde Morris, Lake Lanier Association attorney.

But MacGregor isn’t totally comfortable yet.

“It was very good news,” she said. “It’s not the end of the story, so we’ll wait for the court. And really, we’re going to keep doing everything we’re doing, promoting water conservation and the wise use of water and working on water quality issues for the lake.”

Water usage and conservation were an issue particularly earlier this year, as the area was in the grips of extreme drought.

Conditions have since improved. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows Hall County as now partially abnormally dry and partially in moderate drought.
However, “the lake is still not full,” MacGregor said. “So far, so good (in December), and if the (winter months) are wet, then we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

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