When it comes to water, the weather has worked in Georgia's favor this year, but that's about it. Everything and everyone else is lined up against us. Hanging in the balance is the future of Lake Lanier, its water and growth in North Georgia.
And other than a few storm clouds and the hope that El Niño will bring more, the odds are pretty weak in our favor.
The state's foes include a federal court judge, the governors of Alabama and Florida clinging tightly to his robe and the congressional delegations of those states ready to thwart any legislation that would give Georgia a greater share of Lanier's water.
Also working against our state are those pesky Lake Lanier manuals created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s when the lake was filled. In mandating the impoundment's intended purposes — recreation, flood control, power generation, navigation — they failed to mention water supply. The corps' attempts to update those books came too late to do us much good.
The July 17 ruling by Judge Paul Magnuson in U.S. District Court came as a surprise to some, but it shouldn't have. While water to fuel growth in North Georgia has been taken for granted, interrupted only by droughts, the law is clear: Lake Lanier was not created as a source for metro Atlanta to draw as much water as it pleases.
Magnuson's 97-page ruling says as much, and though he admits it to be "draconian" to pull the plug on a metro area of 5 million people, the law is the law. So he is giving the states three years to work it out, via negotiation and legislation, before water withdrawals from the Lanier basin must revert to 1970-era levels.
There are any number of people to blame for this, but Magnuson isn't one of them. So many others have failed to solve the issue before it reached this point.
It starts with the corps, which waited decades too long to update its manuals to reflect the changing reality of the region's water needs. Instead, its leaders made decisions based on the needs of the moment that were not based in law or policy, which the court has now ruled to be improper.
A few years back, a faulty gauge led to water releases that dropped the lake two feet in the middle of a drought. Last year, the corps continued minimum flows out of Lanier while reservoirs downstream were at full pool. Both these incidents show a clear pattern of mismanagement by the designated caretakers of the lake.
And the politicians in charge of the combative states kept the water war raging for 18 years — 18 years! — without a solution. How to allocate a finite supply of a key resource should be negotiable. You give us a little more, we give you something in return. But each state's leaders are so beholden to specific interests - Georgia to Atlanta's growth, Alabama to power plants, Florida to the fishing industry - they are unwilling to compromise for the good of all concerned.
And we also can blame ourselves, those of us who run the taps longer than we should, water lawns that don't need it, wash cars that aren't dirty and waste water because there's always been enough of it. Those days are over and we need to adjust to that.
So now what? Gov. Sonny Perdue is throwing every possible solution at the wall and hoping something sticks. First he plans to appeal the ruling, which likely is futile. He also plans to restart negotiations with Alabama and Florida, though his weakened position won't help his case.
He also is trying to rally the state's congressional delegation to provide a legislative solution. Though water is not a partisan issue, the Democrats are in firm control of Congress, and nine of Georgia's 15 members are Republicans who can't get a good table in a D.C. restaurant these days, much less push any legislation. They are opposed by the combined delegations of Alabama and Florida, also majority Republican, meaning even their own party won't back a plan to salvage the status quo.
Let's face it; we lost. So, it's time to devise a plan for what's next.
In the case of Gainesville and Hall County, there is good and bad news. Gainesville will be allowed to continue to pull water from Lanier, along with Buford, even after the three-year period. But the water volume allocated also will revert to 1975 levels, when the county had a fraction of its current population. That's about 8 million gallons a day, less than half of what we use now.
There is hope on the horizon, but you have to squint hard to see it. Plans are moving forward for a new reservoir on the Glades Farm property in North Hall. The complex permitting process is moving ahead, and a public comment session is set for Aug. 6. But even in a best-case scenario, it will be at least seven years before the county could draw any water from a new lake.
And that won't help folks downstream. Atlanta cannot continue as the economic engine for the state without a steady water supply. For too long, the city has relied on a single water source and did not plan for the future it now faces.
At the bottom of the well are these cold hard facts that we consider to be indisputable: We have to conserve more; availability of water resources has to be a factor in planning for future growth; metro Atlanta is far too big and vital to be dependent on a single source of water; and Atlanta has to draw water from Lake Lanier to survive.
Those are common sense realities. It remains to be seen if there is enough common sense left to be found in our government and judicial system to come up with solutions. A review of the past two decades and a history of weak planning, bad management and political inaction would suggest not.