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Our Views: Too little, too late?
State needed strong water policy long ago
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Some time in the next few days, Lake Lanier will surpass its lowest level ever of 1,052.66 feet reached in 1981. It will mark the latest milestone in the ongoing drought that threatens the water supply for millions of Georgians who rely on Lanier and the Chattahoochee River basin.

State officials estimate that only about two months' worth of quality drinking water is left in the top levels of Lake Lanier (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials say there's more). Some cities, like Gainesville, are able to draw water from deeper in the lake without a problem. But if the projections are accurate and we don't get significant rain this winter, some communities will be forced to use water that could look and taste dirty, if they can reach it.

The state's has won one victory in its ability to keep more of its precious water rather than release it downriver to points in Alabama and Florida. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave the corps the go-ahead to cut water releases by about 5 percent, beginning immediately. That could increase to 17 percent later on.

It's an important step, though likely not the last we'll hear of it. Florida is seeking legal action to keep the water flowing to support its hydroelectric plants and fishing industry. A federal appeals court panel of judges already has acknowledged that the lake was created primarily for hydropower use, not water supply. The corps ultimately may have to live by that decree and release more water.

But the fact is that even if we let the Gulf mussels go bone dry, the supply of water left in Lanier is finite. Many have sought to conserve, and those efforts have indeed helped. Check out the gray water system that local businessman James Mathis Sr. has installed in his home on today's front page and you'll see a prime example.

Yet it still won't be enough. We can close the gates to Buford Dam and conserve. We can pray for rain and ask schoolchildren to come up with ideas, as Gov. Sonny Perdue did last week.

And still, without more rain, we're only buying time toward the inevitable. There simply is more water going out of the lake than there is going in, and it can't survive in that situation for long.

Perdue, for his part, is trying to play the part of the engaged political leader. His acts of seeming desperation give him an "A" for effort, even if most are more for show than substantive policy moves.

But many can't help but wonder why the state waited so long to act. In retrospect, the conservation measures in place now could have saved several extra months' worth of water had the state implemented them sooner.

Georgia tightened its water restrictions in late September, banning all outdoor watering after several months of below-average rainfall. It wasn't until the corps reported that the water supply in Lake Lanier was falling dangerously low that state officials took action. Perhaps such a move weeks or months earlier would have saved more of our precious resource.

Then Perdue began to take on the corps and its regular water releases from Buford Dam. He filed a lawsuit to slow the releases, which he retracted shortly after an agreement in Washington, D.C., between the states to share water. Florida officials then backed out of that deal, leading to a fresh round of lawsuits. The three governors are scheduled to meet again in December, but who is willing to bet against the Supreme Court ultimately having to decide the case?

The corps has been releasing water in the same amount for years. Why did Georgia wait until the drought reached crisis levels before taking legal action? Sure, hindsight is 20-20, but the test of true leadership is to anticipate problems and act in time to prevent them. In this drought crisis, our state has been reactive, not proactive.

Now that we have reached this point, there is just so much government can do to fix a problem so long in the making. The time to act is well before the taps run dry. And in that measure, the state came up very short.

We should have been taking water needs into account long ago when approving massive development. We should have mandated conservation measures for commercial interests and offered tax incentives to boost them. We should have cut back on needless outdoor watering long ago.

And we should have, and still must, increase the cost of water use as a further incentive to conserve. It's working with the price of gasoline; when it nudges up to $3 a gallon, folks decide they don't really need to make that trip after all. Maybe if water were to cost more, the laggards who still run the taps with abandon will get in line with the rest of us and try to save more of it.

Will any of this make a difference? Hard to say. The winter months are traditionally dry here, and the forecast isn't promising. If we could get enough rain to keep the water supply somewhat stable until spring, perhaps the La Niña phenomenon will ease up and the spring rains will replenish our supply.

Until then, we can only conserve, stick barrels under our gutters and make do. And pray for the collective wisdom to find solutions and the strength to get through this.