Amid worries over the slumping economy, failing home mortgages and job layoffs, there is one more looming concern that hasn't gone away.
If you haven't noticed, rainfall this winter is below normal yet again, meaning the drought remains with us for the foreseeable future. Rainfall in late December and January helped bring Lake Lanier up a few feet, avoiding another all-time low. Yet precipitation still remains below normal for the first two months of the year, despite the weekend's storms, and the dry months loom ahead, bringing increased water use and greater evaporation.
While we wait and hope for more rain, our water problems are being discussed in court. A handful of lawsuits are pending before a U.S. district court judge in Jacksonville addressing the release of water in the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river system by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with the states of Alabama and Florida seeking more water downstream to maintain their power plants and fishing grounds.
But as we await the arrival of clouds or court relief, there is another glimmer of hope on the horizon that can help North Georgia manage its water resources more effectively in the future.
Last week, Rep. Nathan Deal and Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson met with U.S. Army officials to hammer out a plan to build a new reservoir in northeastern Hall County, part of the effort to ease our dependence on 50-year-old Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee. They were joined by environmental experts, Hall Commission Chairman Tom Oliver and a representative for the Goess-Sarau family in Austria that owns the 7,000-acre tract, the largest parcel of undeveloped land remaining in the county.
The plan would create a new 805-acre water reservoir at Glade Mills Farm in Hall County in a public-private partnership with the land owners, who would help with construction and operation of the lake. The site has been set aside for a reservoir since the county bought the tract seven years ago, but attempts to finish the project have hit continual snags.
To date, other attempts to create additional water sources in Hall County have hit dry wells. The Cedar Creek reservoir in East Hall was created as a joint Gainesville-Hall County project, but though the 143-acre lake sits full, the water treatment plant needed to make it usable hasn't been built and there is no way to transport the water.
Georgia legislators have pushed for more reservoir construction, but there are numerous hurdles communities must overcome before they can build one. The state Environmental Protection Division must complete impact studies before permits can be issued. Those are expensive and time-consuming, and put many such projects in limbo.
Then comes approval from the Environmental Protection Agency, the national equivalent of the EPD, and the Corps of Engineers, which manages the watershed. Add treatment facilities and pipelines and the expense is considerable, especially at a time when local governments are struggling to balance their budgets amid falling tax revenues.
Now that the reservoir effort has been made in Washington to fast-track the project, it needs to be followed through. It starts with Hall County officials taking the necessary steps to meet all permit requirements. It means having state legislators and other leaders working on the county's behalf to push the project forward as a high priority.
It still won't happen overnight; the permit process takes 12 to 18 months, and it could be 2020 before Hall County can pull any water from such a system. Questions remain as to how the water will be accessed, either by pumping it southward to Gainesville or releasing the water down the Chattahoochee into Lanier where the city could pump it out via its water intake pipe. The latter option is likely to be discarded in favor of a pipeline, which won't come cheap or easy.
Yet the momentum must continue to see the project completed. Too much time and resources already have been wasted. We're two years into a serious drought with no end in sight. Our growing county can't meet the needs of residents or businesses in years to come without another reliable source of water.
It's clear that Lake Lanier can't be counted on forever as a source of drinking water. The drought, combined with the lake's age and the strains caused by development, leaves its future health in question. And if the lawsuits pending in federal court don't go Georgia's way, the corps will have to increase water releases that helped lead to the lake's near 20-foot drop in water levels in late 2007.
Growth in North Georgia, particularly in metro Atlanta, has overtaxed the region's single water source. It's been mentioned before, but no major city in the United States is dependent on such a limited source of water. Development wasn't managed well, and many metro counties grew faster than they should have with such a limited water source.
But those decisions are in the past, and Georgians shouldn't suffer from the mistakes of others. A region of 5 million-plus people can't be sacrificed over mussels in the Gulf, cheap power in Alabama or the age-old resentment over Atlanta's poor planning choices.
Atlanta will need to address its own problems in the future, but Hall and other communities in the Lanier basin can't wait. The sooner our area can become less dependent on the Chattahoochee for water by diversifying the sources, the better situated it will be to add residential and commercial growth when the economy rebounds.
Georgia's Congressional leaders have done their part, and so has the corps, to push this project back onto the front burner. Now it's time to make it happen.