Georgia's quest to conserve its present and future water supply seems to take a new turn each week.
Gov. Sonny Perdue announced last week a legislative initiative known as the Georgia Water Stewardship Act to push strong conservation methods as part of the state's plan to resolve its water crisis. The bill is based on recommendations from Perdue's appointed Water Contingency Task Force, and will be submitted to the General Assembly.
The plan would call for numerous measures to save water in light of the state's potential loss of Lake Lanier as a primary source if the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson takes effect in 2012.
Perdue has responded to Magnuson's ruling and the ongoing tri-state water wars with a multipronged approach at preserving Georgia's water supply. First came a renewed attempt to negotiate a deal with the governors of Florida and Alabama. The three met in December and reported progress.
Then came the legal battle, as the state sought to appeal Magnuson's ruling that would revert water use to 1970s levels without a congressionally-approved plan to designate Lanier as a water source. An appeals court ruled in January that Georgia can proceed with its case, which likely will occur in March.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving ahead with the process of rewriting the 50-year-old water-use manuals for Lake Lanier to include water supply as a key function of the reservoir. Public input has been received and the updates are expected next year.
And the goal of creating more reservoirs in North Georgia is under way, though building, filling and tapping man-made lakes takes years. Discussions continue between Hall County and Gainesville over how to fill and distribute water from the proposed Glades Reservoir while figuring out how to share water in the 141-acre Cedar Creek Reservoir.
Perdue's plan would make us work harder to use less water now. Of all the approaches to solving our water problem, this is the one most within our power; it does not require approval from the courts or a negotiated deal between rival governments.
It's also wise to roll it out now when Georgia finds itself flush with water after a near-record year of rainfall that has Lanier and other lakes at full pool. Waiting until the next drought before implementing such measures would put us back where we were two years ago when the lake dropped to its all-time low and draconian conservation methods were close at hand.
When the drought was at its worst, Georgians did their part to conserve, and it made a difference. Gainesville cut its water use significantly. Starting in October 2006, the city reported drawing 19 million gallons of water per day from its Lanier intake. That amount fell to 17 million in the early days of the drought in October 2007, and down to 16.8 million the next year.
Last October, it was at 16.2 million, down more than 3 million gallons from three years before. And from a maximum daily high of 27 million gallons in 2007, the city's highest-use day of 2009 was just more than 21 million gallons.
The Water Stewardship Act would require new residential and commercial buildings to use efficient water fixtures and monitors; push local governments to seek ways to retrofit older buildings with such water-saving devices and systems to reuse water; have the state Environmental Protection Division oversee water loss and leak detection for all public water systems; and extend the voluntary agricultural monitoring program.
Governments need to implement creative incentives for conservation — fast-track permitting for subdivisions with low impact water needs, tax breaks, etc. — and penalize for waste, including higher rates and even criminal charges for the worst cases. The governor's plan focuses on incentives statewide and leaves stricter measures up to local jurisdictions.
Conservation needs to be a consideration throughout the building process, not just in plumbing but in designing landscaping, approving asphalt and capturing runoff.
The bill is a proactive move and important on a couple of different levels. The first is clear; only by saving water when there is plenty of it can Georgia be assured of weathering the next drought.
But it's also an important public relations move to show the state's intentions of dealing with its neighbors, the corps and other governmental leaders fairly. Metro Atlanta's breakneck growth has led to a massive increase in the use, and waste, of the region's water. As North Georgia communities have slurped up more of it, residents of Central and South Georgia have been less than sympathetic at our plight. Like Alabama and Florida, they want their share of water to flow down the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, and have been put off by metro Atlanta's greed.
Perdue's plan is a starting point to implement conservation plans across the board, putting thirsty Atlanta in the same boat as everyone else.
There's no denying that we were wasteful with a resource we took for granted for too long. Until new water sources are ready, a deal for Lake Lanier's future is settled and the legal issues are decided, there is only one sure plan to ensure water for the next generation: Begin saving it now.
We urge lawmakers to consider the governor's plan, improve it where they can, and pass it before this year's session is done. The water it saves, and the good will that could flow from it, is an important step toward solving our long-term water concerns.