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Projects to manage water left in limbo
Local governments wait to hear judges decision
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Public utilities workers for Gainesville and Hall County are finding it hard to plan these days.

With a looming deadline to reauthorize Lake Lanier for drinking water, officials are trying to sort out how much water withdrawal will be allowed, how to adjust for population growth and how water restrictions will be calculated.

"Ultimately, we have to wait and see what the judges will say in about two months and keep doing what we're doing," said Pat Stevens, chief environmental planning officer for the Atlanta Regional Commission. "We have to use efficiency, focus on conservation and watch the timing with the recession."

Last month, judges from the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals heard testimony about the tri-state water war.

Georgia officials asked the court to overturn a July 2009 ruling by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson that gave the state three years to work out an agreement with neighbors Alabama and Florida or face not being able to withdraw water from Lake Lanier. The judges have not yet made a ruling.

Both Gainesville Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall and Hall County Public Utilities Director Ken Rearden agree the governments need to move forward with plans to bring Cedar Creek and Glades reservoirs online as water resources, but they still have questions about when and how to do it.

For example, if Magnuson's ruling stands, Hall County officials who are planning Glades Reservoir would be required to build pipelines around Lake Lanier to move the water.

"We need the permit, which is good for a 10-year period, but we don't have to go out and build the $346 million project tomorrow," Rearden said during a recent panel discussion on the water war. "Hopefully we won't have to build that much because more than half of the pipelines would have to pipe around the lake. If it touches the lake, the water would be considered Lake Lanier water."

The biggest complication comes from guessing where water use levels will be set, Randall said.

"When we initially got 8 million gallons of water per day, we thought that was enough to last forever," he said. "And later we gained an additional 12 million gallons. We kept growing and had even more customers."

In 1990, the city used 11 million gallons per day, which grew to 17.9 million in 2000 and hit a peak at 19.7 million in 2006. Through conservation measures, today's use is back at 17.6 million.

Magnuson's ruling suggests water use may be forced back to 1970s levels. For Gainesville, that could mean about 20 million gallons per day, when accounting for a credit Gainesville's utilities department received for clean wastewater it returned to the lake.

In addition, a 2003 negotiation contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set Gainesville's level at 18 million.

"Recently, it's the Army's viewpoint that the amendment is still valid," Randall said. "Then others seem to think we would go back to usage in 2006, which was 19.7, so you see the questions we're dealing with here."

That's the largest hiccup when it comes to budgeting.

"Right now, it's anybody's guess what might happen with Judge Magnuson's ruling, and depending on the curve, we could have between 8 million gallons and 35 (million) gallons per day, which we may need now, by 2015 or 2025," he said. "Based on growth, my finance folks and engineers are saying different things. So what is it? I don't know."

As Rearden and Randall do their part to plan in the short term, others are looking at water use for the next generation.

"We need to plan this for a full 30-50 years out and fix what we can by controlling our destiny here in Hall County with Cedar Creek and Glades," said Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. "We always think about the court case, but we have no control over that."

With a projected population increase, it's better to plan for steady growth and an increase in water use in the next few years, Dunlap said.

"I don't think that will change," she said. "It's better to plan for the future than get into a crisis again if we're short on water or have a drastic drought or something else changes with the court cases."

Residents should be a part of the planning by joining local water advocacy groups, such as the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Stakeholders, Stevens added.

"The stakeholders are a group of Lake Lanier folks who came together to talk about solutions to see if the people can look at the problem and come up with ideas," Stevens said.

"There's never one right answer, so more than anything it's a vehicle for communication. We get to know the people in the basin and find out what their issues are as well."