The River's Reach: A multimedia special report
Times reporter Ashley Fielding and photographer Sara Guevara recently traveled the river's full length to witness its impact and tell the stories of the people whose livelihood depends on the Chattahoochee's flow. Their journey, in words and pictures, is chronicled in "The River's Reach," an eight-part series running daily June 20-27. Stories are available only in the print edition of The Times, available at retail outlets and news racks across Northeast Georgia. To have our award-winning newspaper delivered to your home, click here or call 770-532-2222. To read previous installments in the series, copies of The Times are on sale in our lobby at 345 Green St., Gainesville, during weekday business hours.
Since our water crisis became priority No. 1 during the recent drought, most of our attention has been on Lake Lanier. As the lake level dropped to an all-time low in December 2007, concerns over our long-term use of this vital water source mounted.
Last year, as the drought was easing and the lake inching toward full pool, a federal court ruling that Lanier was not designated for water supply for metro Atlanta sent a second shock wave through the state.
Since then, the focus has been on creating new water sources, through new reservoir systems in Hall County and beyond; on fighting the court ruling; on negotiating a settlement with Alabama and Florida over use of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system; and on conserving as much water as possible.
But as we have seen in our eight-day series The River's Reach, the Chattahoochee River serves more than just the needs of North Georgia and metro Atlanta.
Much of the attention during the tri-state water wars fell on Alabama's power plants and Florida's shellfish in the Apalachicola Bay, two key functions of the river. But we all lost sight of just how important this vital, life-giving artery is to so many more communities and people in all three states.
The stories by Ashley Fielding and pictures by Sara Guevara have brought to attention how so many others rely on the river. There are the abandoned mill sites along the riverfront in Columbus that the city hopes to turn into a vibrant commercial development; the recreational needs of those who paddle, fish and gaze upon its calming waters; the manufacturing plants that need water for production; and farms that need irrigation.
This river, we have felt, was ours. It starts in our mountains, it fills our lake, and it runs through the middle of the South's largest metro area. Now our eyes are open to its importance to many more fellow Southerners, and how its preservation should remain a major push for our political leadership.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has vowed to continue working on a deal with the governors of Alabama and Florida before all of their terms end. But with Crist focused on his Senate race and the other two headed out of office, that seems unlikely.
Barring an overturning of the federal ruling or a legal or political Hail Mary, the only path toward resolving the conflict is for Georgia's governor to strike a deal with nearby colleagues who have less to lose or gain from such a pact.
Thus, Georgia's next governor must quickly head to the negotiating table with the new leaders of Florida and Alabama to solve what two decades of their predecessors could not. For Georgia's new chief executive, in particular, the clock is ticking toward 2012 when Judge Paul Magnuson's ruling could curtail use of water from Lanier and the Chattachoochee to levels that cannot sustain the current population, much less provide for future growth.
The new governor must continue to put the needs of all Georgians front and center, not just those of us in North Georgia or metro Atlanta, but also Columbus, Fort Gaines, Blakely and dozens of other towns that cluster by the flowing waters.
Every place this river touches, every piece of land along its banks, yields potential residential or commercial growth. Finding a way to keep the flow at a steady pace for all concerned is the challenge of a lifetime for all of our state's leaders.
The history of water agreements between states shows they can be fleeting and changeable over time as different areas grow and new leaders take office. Thus, Georgia's leaders need to be flexible to deal with new political and environmental challenges.
And additional water sources — reservoirs, desalination, the Tennessee River — should be pursued, even if they serve only as a hedge against the worst-case scenario.
As part of that effort, the state must continue to push conservation. The General Assembly passed, and Perdue signed, a strong bill this year creating incentives for residential and commercial water savings. The time to enforce these is not when the inevitable next drought strikes but now, while the lake is full, the river is flowing free and there is plenty of water to save.
Meanwhile, metro Atlanta's sprawling growth needs to be better managed to ensure that there is enough water for all without leaving the folks downriver out of the mix.
It's a tall order, but growing our state's economy and bringing jobs back to our communities will rely on fixing ongoing problems with transportation, education and water. All are linked to our long-term prosperity, and ignoring any of the three will result in a state that moves backward, not forward, in the decade to come.
As we tick down toward the July primary, listen to the candidates as they discuss their water solutions. Don't just fall for the easy answers, the "we own it, we'll keep it, and we'll run the corps off our property" blustery nonsense. This is a time for realistic solutions and a mature approach, not empty bravado that won't fix anything.
The federal government built Buford Dam and filled Lake Lanier to deal with the needs of the entire region. Georgia can no more claim it for its own selfish use than it can a military installation or federal building. Whether we like it or not, we have to share, and we have to do so legally, fairly and sensibly.
Our state desperately needs the Chattahoochee River, now and for years to come. The candidate for governor who can formulate a sensible plan to preserve and allocate its waters effectively deserves strong consideration for your vote.