The first thing to know about Georgia’s water worries is that just as Washington doesn’t have a revenue problem but a spending problem, Georgia doesn’t have a water supply problem but a water storage problem. And with a busy session and a cash-strapped state facing Georgia’s legislators, members of a joint committee on water supply got a head start this week on the challenges ahead. There were some outside-the-box proposals, but there’s still more that could be done.
Georgia’s annual rainfall averages 60 inches in the mountains, 55 inches across North Georgia and about 45 inches in central Georgia. But now that a judge has ruled that Lake Lanier, metro Atlanta’s major water source, was never designated as drinking water supply, Lanier will be essentially be off-limits to metro Atlanta unless Georgia, Florida and Alabama agree by 2012 on water sharing. Water withdrawals from Lanier would have to return to 1975 levels of 10 million gallons per day (gpd); 2009 levels were permitted at 214 million gpd. Gwinnett County, currently allowed to withdraw 150 million gpd, would get nothing.
Clearly, neighbors Florida and Alabama are in the catbird seat and using water to push back at Georgia, the economic engine of the Southeast.
Several speakers told legislators that competing states are encouraging business to ask about the state’s future water supply before locating here.
Even if Georgia wins its pending appeal and Lake Lanier water is back in the mix, the metro region needs six more reservoirs to accommodate population growth. The General Assembly approved the 2010 Water Stewardship Act (creating the joint legislative committee on water supply), which contains several conservation measures. Among them are water loss and leak detection standards for public water systems and high-efficiency fittings for new buildings beginning in 2012. Conservation measures, however, are just one tool in the toolbox, not the whole solution.
Capacity has to be found to store North Georgia’s abundant precipitation.
Allen Barnes, director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD), told legislators that while the state must continue conservation efforts, it must also expand storage at existing reservoirs and build new reservoirs; consider using aquifers for storage and groundwater augmentation, and it must remain flexible on interbasin transfers, despite controversy. Brent Dykes, head of the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission, said some of the state’s 357 watershed floodwater dams in North Georgia are an “untapped resource” for drinking water supply. Katie Kirkpatrick, a member of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, told lawmakers that just two of nine quarries considered for storage are currently inactive.
According to the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, 16 reservoirs in the EPD’s inventory have the potential for expansion and eight of those have been proposed or are under way. The cost of building a new reservoir yielding 100 million gpd ranges between $400 million and $1.1 billion, depending on siting and environmental considerations. One such reservoir is still less than the 250 million gpd lost if Georgia loses Lake Lanier.
The Department of Natural Resources has released for public comment a slate of regulations for interbasin transfers. They had been sidestepped by the Legislature. As Senate natural resources committee Chairman Ross Tolleson put it, “We have not been able to have an adult conversation in the General Assembly about interbasin transfers.” Last week, the metro planning district added conservation measures.
With everything on the table, cost-effectiveness and common sense must be priorities. Costing more than $13.50 per gallon per day, for example, the 2008 toilet rebate program for metro Atlanta was not cost-effective. Lawmakers must overturn the nonsensical prohibition on interbasin transfers into the 15-county, 91-city metro planning district and the EPD must not restrict thus-far responsible interbasin transfers. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 108 lie in more than one river basin.
It’s time to enable and encourage private sector investment in water systems and infrastructure to supplement limited taxpayer funds. It’s time to incorporate and support the scientific approach of academic institutions like Georgia Tech’s Water Resources Institute. Its director, Dr. Aris Georgakakos, told attendees at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Legislative Policy Briefing in November of a plan that could raise reservoir levels about 10 feet along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee Flint river basin and meet Atlanta and downstream needs.
One way or another, Georgia’s water users can expect to see more restrictions and higher bills. It’s encouraging to see the efforts of state leaders to minimize the impact. While negotiations continue with our neighbors, the state’s solutions must hold water, literally and figuratively.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.