Remember several months back when the governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida met in Washington, D.C., and formed the framework of a deal to finally share water and end their 17-year battle? If not, it's because the deal didn't last long. If you blinked your eyes, you missed it.
Now we're back where we started, with the states arguing over how best to distribute water in the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river system to meet each's specific needs. So far, any scenario that benefits Georgia is opposed by the other two. That's why the dispute is likely to end up in federal court.
Thursday, Florida lawmakers accused Georgia of mismanaging water consumption, particularly in metro Atlanta. They called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lake Lanier and other reservoirs along the route, to increase the volume of water releases from Buford Dam that were cut in December to keep the lake's levels from dropping any further.
Florida's key concern is the fishing industry in the Apalachicola Bay, which depends upon fresh water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Alabama's key concern is power, chiefly the Plant Farley nuclear power plant near Dothan, which depends on water from the river to cool its reactors.
And Georgia's main worry? That would be water for drinking, for bathing, for keeping our plants and trees from dying. It's kind of important.
So whose needs trumps whose? Here in Georgia, our perspective is going to be with keeping more water in Lanier. Our region depends on the lake for so many reasons: Water, of course, for the cities and counties that draw from the lake and the Chattahoochee as it flows south. But the lake also is important for tourism, recreation and power generation, all vital to the local economy.
There's no denying that runaway growth in Georgia, particularly the Atlanta area, has tapped our single water source too heavily. The state also was slow to develop alternate water sources in the form of new reservoirs and water storage; a bill just passed by the legislature this year and signed by the governor should expedite that process.
Then again, there was plenty of water for everyone before Mother Nature intervened with a three-year drought that threatens to drag on through this summer. And keep in mind that Florida is no great model for restraint and long-range planning, either.
Metro Atlanta now is home to more than 5 million people; what are they supposed to do without water? Ignoring the needs of one of the nation's most influential metropolitan areas and a huge force in the U.S. economy seems a harsh penalty for poor planning. All so folks in Alabama and Florida, none of whom are going thirsty, can turn out cheap power and harvest oysters.
Florida and Alabama officials have cited the original operating manuals for Lake Lanier and the river basin as their just cause for increasing the flows. Those manuals, written when the lake was first filled in the 1950s, cite numerous functions the water system was created to provide, including flood control, navigation and hydropower, but not drinking water storage. That need simply evolved over time and has become the chief concern for North Georgia communities.
The corps is now working to update those guides to better reflect the true functions of Lanier and its rivers. Among the proposals is to store more water in the basin during drought periods, as we have now. Such a task is long overdue, and we hope, not too late.
The feds must also weigh the negative impact of increasing Lanier's water flows on North Georgia and metro Atlanta into any decision. Diminishing the water source for millions would have a devastating effect for everyone. What Alabamans might gain from their increased power plant capacity they could lose in the form of lost Georgia jobs, such as the new Kia auto plant being built near the state line, and the flow of goods from the region's financial and transportation hub.
And what Florida gains from having more healthy shellfish to sell will be obvious: How many restaurants and retailers in Georgia will no longer be around to buy Gulf seafood?
If Lanier is dealt a death knell by federal fiat, we all lose. We lose first because our economy and water supply depends on it. But just as that water carries prosperity with it as it flows north to south, so will the pain of losing the lake follow that same course when shortsighted politicians downriver have sought to drain it. No lake, no river, no power plant, no oysters. A lose-lose-lose scenario.
That's why federal officials have to step in and put what's sensible and in the best interest of all over the narrow concerns of a few. When Lanier's manuals are updated, the corps can best determine how to set dam releases for both drought and floods, and everything in-between, to keep the system healthy.
In the meantime, particularly during drought, a shared sacrifice can maintain our resource. That means continued watering restrictions for North Georgians and not waste what we have. It also means a tighter clamp on new development in the region until new reservoirs can be built to serve them.
That also means Alabama and Florida must adjust to regular but decreased flows until the rains return. Painful as it may be, there is no other way to split the costs fairly.
We're sorry our state didn't plan better, but not sorry enough to let our taps run dry and our cities turn into ghost towns all for the selfish interests of the folks down the river.