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Water: Keep it flowing clean for the future
Everyone has a stake in ensuring water in Lake Lanier, feeder streams are safe for use
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To send a letter to the editor, learn the letters policy fill out a form online or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson

Water is a resource we often take for granted. Where our pioneer ancestors had to settle by a waterway and haul it by the bucket for their daily needs, all we need do is open a faucet for our morning coffee, hot shower or to water the garden. It’s always there, cheap and available.

Yet as we discovered in North Georgia’s severe droughts of the last decade, and as California residents are finding out now, it may not always be there. We don’t fully appreciate it until it’s gone.

But even when water is plentiful, is it always clean?

That’s another thing we often assume. What flows into our houses is believed to be safe for our family to drink and bathe in, to clean our dishes and clothes. It’s not enough to have it available in quantity if the quality isn’t ideal for communities to grow and thrive.

Today, The Times begins a five-day series examining the water quality in Lake Lanier and its tributaries, and many factors that create the threats to its safety. It’s a reminder that water is more than just an important resource; its use, allocation and preservation involve political wrangling, environmental concerns and commercial needs, all of which must be carefully balanced to benefit everyone.

The good news is that recent tests conducted by governmental and advocacy groups show the water in Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee is mostly safe for drinking and recreational use. Yet levels of chlorophyll-a often rank above the standard, and the Chattahoochee and several of Lanier’s feeder streams are considered impaired for recreational use and fish health because of bacteria.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers unveiled new water guidelines to make industries conform to the Clean Water Act. The new standards aim to better protect streams and wetlands from pollution created by human activities.

The EPA claims Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 left 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands lacking such protection. The new rules would force a permitting process if a business or landowner took steps to pollute or destroy covered waters.

The move has predictably sparked opposition from those who claim the rules are too onerous to business interests. House Speaker John Boehner declared the limits will send “landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

Many farmers and landowners are concerned that all waterways on private lands would be subject to federal oversight, creating a bureaucratic nightmare. Regulations that businesses can’t afford to implement could lead to higher prices at the supermarket, and over time could cost jobs and hurt the economy.

Environmentalists, some of whom never met a federal regulation they didn’t like, counter with the belief that stricter rules are needed to protect water quality now and in the future. In their defense, it was a laissez-faire approach that led to the fouled waterways of the 1960s and ’70s (Remember the teary-eyed Native American in the iconic TV ads of that era?) and sparked passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. At the time, urban waterways like Boston Harbor and others were cesspools of pollution, and the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire. No one wants to go back to those bad old days.

After all, farmers and other business owners have as much stake as anyone in preserving clean waterways. Their families drink from wells and streams that draw from the same water that sustains their enterprises. A clean Lake Lanier provides drinking water and lures tourists and their welcome dollars to the region. A lake full of sediment, fecal waste and dead fish benefits no one.

So clearly there needs to be some give-and-take, as is the case with most government regulations. While the goal of keeping waterways clean is in everyone’s interests, the rules need to accomplish this without saddling businesses with mandates that entangle them in red tape or unnecessary expenses.

That formula includes managing residential and commercial growth carefully. The spread of impervious surfaces like pavement and concrete increases the messy chemical soup that runs off into reservoirs during each rainstorm.

Remember that keeping our water clean is an effort we all must take part in, not just farmers, poultry plants, activists, developers and elected officials. Every resident who spreads fertilizer, pesticides or other chemicals is having an impact on the groundwater that eventually makes its way to streams and into Lanier. Every ounce of weed killer or fire-ant bait beyond what is needed, multiplied thousands of times, can add up to trouble. We all must do our part to remain responsible stewards of our water and not foul our nest.

Just because you aren’t standing on the shore of the lake and tossing an empty can into the water doesn’t mean you aren’t having a negative impact on water quality. Don’t make the mistake of believing that handful of old prescription pills you dump into the toilet or that used motor oil you pour into a drain by the curb of your house ends up somewhere other than the reservoir from which we all drink. It doesn’t.

Improving our water quality begins with that awareness and understanding the impact our choices can have. And knowing that we can’t always rely on clean water if we don’t stay diligent and proactive. What we get out of our faucets will only be as good as the effort we put in.

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