Today, the governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia are set to meet to discuss a water-sharing agreement on the use of Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River system.
More than any budget item, any transportation project or any health care initiative, the results of this and subsequent meetings between the governors over the next three years will determine the long term economic viability of the state of Georgia.
This will be the first meeting of the governors since a federal judge from Minnesota ruled this past summer that the states have until July 2012 to work out an agreement or the Atlanta region will be reduced to water withdrawal levels not seen since the mid-1970s — a result that even the judge described as devastating to the region.
Although it has taken over three months for the governors to get together, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has not been sitting idly by doing nothing. In the true spirit of a state leader, he has appointed committees to study the problem and come up with solutions.
The first committee, or task force as they are referred to as in state government, was formed to advise the governor on strategy in the water dispute. This group of business and government leaders is charged with working with the governor on the future developments in the water battle.
In early October, Gov. Perdue appointed another task force of business and political leaders who were given the mission of developing contingency plans if the court ruling cutting out water withdrawals from Lake Lanier were to actually be carried out. The water contingency task force released its initial list of alternatives in late November, recommending the state build more reservoirs and consider taking water through inter-basin transfers while downplaying the impact of water conservation.
These recommendations raised the ire of other areas of the state of Georgia who are opposed to the idea of inter-basin transfers and of environmentalists who feel that Georgia can cheaply conserve far more water than the task force believes it can.
Last week, the task force released its final report which was less specific than the original one and emphasized the three C’s: Conservation — increase conservation efforts and reduce losses from leaks; Capture — build new and expand existing reservoirs; and Control — restricting outdoor water use and requiring new plumbing updates.
With all of the task force reports, one thing has become abundantly clear to everyone involved, especially Gov. Perdue — there is no easy alternative to Lake Lanier and it remains Georgia’s best option for drinking water. It would cost the state billions of dollars to exercise the other options for capturing and controlling more water and these options could not be implemented quickly enough to cover the loss of Lake Lanier as a source of drinking water.
Faced with perhaps the defining issue for his administration, Gov Perdue now faces the unenviable task of negotiating with the other states to come up with an amicable resolution.
Certainly the Atlanta region will have to commit and follow through with aggressive conservation measures as well as alternatives to lessen their dependence on Lake Lanier, but the idea that the region can rid itself of all dependence on this vital source in less than three years is unrealistic.
Whether it’s a thirsty Georgian, a farmer who needs water for his crop in South Alabama, or a fisherman concerned with his livelihood in Florida, everyone has a stake in water.
Perhaps during these tense negotiations the three leaders of these great states will realize that this is more than a battle of water rights- it’s about caring for your fellow human beings and being a good neighbor.