It is not certain who will serve on Gov. Sonny Perdue’s water contingency task force, but some officials say its creation is a step in the right direction.
On Tuesday, the governor’s office announced the formation of a task force that will help Perdue and state legislators develop contingency plans for communities whose use of Lake Lanier as a water source has been threatened by a federal ruling.
"I think it’s one tool in the toolbox that the governor has to address the very serious ruling that was handed down," said State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.
In July, Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that water withdrawal was not a congressionally authorized use of Lake Lanier. The ruling gives Georgia three years to stop using the reservoir for water consumption, negotiate another deal with Florida and Alabama or have Congress reauthorize the lake’s use.
Bert Brantley, Perdue’s director of communications, said Wednesday the governor’s task force is still in its formative stages. The task force will include between 75 and 100 business, environmental and government leaders in the planning process, Brantley said.
"We cast the net pretty wide in terms of invitations," Brantley said.
The governor’s inclusion of business and environmental leaders from across the state in the task force makes Magnuson’s ruling a statewide issue and "not just a city of Atlanta issue," said Gainesville Public Utilities Director Kelly Randall.
"It engages folks within and without the metro area to look at all of the issues facing Georgia that are resulting from the judge’s ruling," Randall said. "I think that’s a good thing."
According to Brantley, the task force will address short-term water issues for Georgians who could have their water supply severely limited or cut off if Magnuson’s ruling stands.
Collins said the task force will deal with back-up plans ranging from water conservation to the possibility of inter-basin transfers providing water to people and businesses in the Chattahoochee basin.
Brantley said the governor is also banking on congressional leaders helping the situation and successful negotiations with the governors of Alabama and Florida. Perdue also is hoping for a successful appeal in what has been widely touted as the governor’s "four-pronged" approach, Brantley said. Just two weeks ago, the governor announced that the state filed a notice to appeal Magnuson’s July ruling.
"I think it’s important to note that we believe that there are some vulnerabilities to the ruling and that there are parts that could be thrown out or overturned altogether," Brantley said.
Brantley said the state was expecting a separate hearing on how to remedy the water situation if Magnuson were to rule that water consumption was not a congressionally authorized use for Lake Lanier. The second hearing never happened, and Magnuson handed down a three-year deadline that even he called draconian.
Under the ruling, Hall County would lose more than half of the water it now draws from Lake Lanier. Gainesville Public Utilities Department would have to return to its original withdrawal permit of 8 million gallons per day. That’s 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. In June, Gainesville’s 46,648 water customers throughout the county used an average of 18.48 million gallons per day, according to reports compiled by the utility.
Randall said part of Gainesville’s short-term contingency plan is to put the unused Cedar Creek Reservoir to use. The East Hall reservoir could provide an average of 7.3 million gallons of water per day within two-and-a-half years.
However, for the reservoir to be useful to all Hall County residents in time for the three-year deadline, county and city officials have to agree on its future.
Hall County built Cedar Creek Reservoir and holds the water withdrawal permit. Three years ago, county officials signed a contract with Gainesville officials handing over control of the reservoir and the responsibility of providing water service for the rest of the county.
Now county officials, who are planning to build another reservoir in North Hall, want to create a North Hall Water Authority and have asked Gainesville to hold off on a Cedar Creek water treatment plant. City officials don’t want to join the authority, but agreed to put off the water treatment plant needed to make the reservoir usable until the two governments can discuss the county’s future water needs.
Even if the two governments agree and the reservoir is usable within the three-year deadline, water customers would still be limited to approximately 15 million gallons of water per day.
"That’s really only a piece of the puzzle if you take Cedar Creek’s ability and the amount of water we’ll be allowed to withdraw from Lanier," Randall said. "It still doesn’t get you to the 18 million gallons per day that we currently average."