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Editorial: A dry spell looming over water worries
With case set for fall trial, drought gives us concerns to face now
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Even as we enjoy the cool waters of Lake Lanier amid the summer heat, there are dark clouds looming on the horizon that could affect the lake’s long-term health.

One is the ongoing tri-state water war, the next salvo set for this fall at a scheduled trial in Washington over Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia. At issue is how our state shares water in the Chattahoochee River system, which includes Lanier.

The other, more ominous, is that we are again in a drought with no clear idea of how long it will last or how bad it will be. The first dispute remains in the hands of lawyers, judges and politicians. The other is outside human control.

The scheduled Oct. 31 trial is over whether Georgia can continue to use more water from the Lanier-Chattachoochee system or be forced to increase releases at Lake Seminole dam to support oyster fishing in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.

Florida alleges Georgia has been using too much water to fuel residential and commercial growth in metro Atlanta. Georgia counters that use of that water for drinking and other purposes is supported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and that the dam releases are sufficient.

The trial will be held in U.S. District Court and overseen by a Maine lawyer appointed to review the case and recommend to the Supreme Court whether it should rule.

Georgia has won in court thus far over this issue, and the state believes it again has a strong case. But there’s no guarantee judges will continue to agree, which could put the state’s water use at risk.

For that reason, it makes sense to continue negotiating with Florida and seek mediation outside of the courtroom. That remedy has been elusive thus far, mostly because Florida wants more water than Georgia is willing to turn loose. Alabama, a third player in the ongoing controversy, is distracted by its governor’s sex scandal and possible impeachment, making three-way talks problematic.

With Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Rick Scott of Florida entering the final years of their second terms, they would be well-served to cement their legacies by finding middle ground in a dispute that has dragged on for decades. Though even such an agreement would involve implementation by the courts, it would ultimately be less costly than the waves of litigation the dispute has created.

Amid the legal wrangling, the corps is revising its manuals that define how water should be used in the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola system. Much of the debate thus far has been over whether drinking water was intended as an original purpose for Lake Lanier when it was first impounded in the 1950s. The corps has said it was, and plans to include that use in the new manuals, which are expected to be ready by next March.

But any changes that are subject to approval by Congress could go against Georgia, whose delegation is outnumbered by Florida’s and Alabama’s combined votes. That issue also could wind up in court. So October trial or no, the end to this 20-year-plus dispute isn’t coming soon.

Meanwhile, the skies remain clear and North Georgia’s rainfall deficit is becoming acute as we head into the dry season. North Georgia just endured the fifth driest spring on record, putting us about 7 inches below average rainfall for the year. The region is currently under a moderate drought which could become more severe in the months ahead.

A few years of ample rainfall helped lift Lanier back to full pool. Now the lake is down 3 feet and headed lower, which puts water policy on the front-burner.

It also again points out the need to conserve water carefully at all levels, government, commercial and residential. And the need for alternative storage methods to keep adequate water supplies on hand.

Hall County’s proposed Glades Reservoir project has been a costly dead end to date, with environmental and political opposition mounting since it was first proposed. The county has suspended its efforts for now after spending some $16 million on consultants and permitting procedures to create an 850-acre lake. Even if it gets back on track, any hope of tapping water from it is years away.

Another potential source of relief is the Cedar Creek Reservoir in East Hall, a 141-acre lake already full but in need of the infrastructure to use the water it holds. It could be time to turn attention to that resource as an alternative if Glades remains a long shot for completion.

Water worries fade to the background when rainfall is abundant and the lakes and streams are full. Now that another drought is upon us, and legal issues threatening as well, North Georgians would be wise to return to the conservation measures enacted during previous droughts.

That means addressing infrastructure concerns that lead to massive leaks of municipal water systems. A recent review shows Gainesville has recovered some 59 million gallons over five years at a savings of $126,000 through its leak-detection program that detects faulty lines, meters and tanks. Other areas haven’t done as well; during that same period, Forsyth County lost more than 500 million gallons, the equivalent of 785 Olympic-sized pools. Across Georgia, water losses are nearly 100 times that. Fixing those issues isn’t cheap, but leaving them unattended is wasteful and more costly in the long run.

And for now, that’s all we can do, knowing we can’t rely on the courts or Mother Nature to take care of our daily water needs if we squander what we have.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas.

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