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Not just another tool in the toolbox
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A recent public meeting held on the topic of aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) conspicuously neglected other relevant water-management problems and opportunities. The meeting was hosted on Jekyll Island by a General Assembly Natural Resources study committee chaired by Sen. Ross Tolleson.

Repeatedly, both EPD staff as well as committee members referred to ASR as “just another water management tool in the toolbox.”

Considering the risks involved in using it — including possible irreversible damage to coastal Georgia’s pristine and vital drinking water supply, the Floridan aquifer — if ASR is a tool, it is akin to an unwieldy chainsaw. Such a potentially dangerous device is hardly “just another tool” and it is misleading to describe it as such.

ASR is now being studied because a bill that would have permanently prohibited it, sponsored by coastal Sen. William Ligon Jr. of Brunswick, was tabled in the last session of the General Assembly. Prior to that, there had been a series of temporary state prohibitions against using ASR in Georgia over the past 15 years.

For a combination of reasons, not only is ASR a chainsaw among water management tools, but its proposed use reveals fundamental failures in Georgia’s approach to environmental regulation and resource management. Much less expensive and risky methods for improving water management are available, yet these are not being considered by legislators or regulators.

Georgia has no water-supply problems — rather, the state has water management problems. The reason for management deficiencies is that practical alternatives for ensuring responsible use of public resources like water are never fully explored because they are politically dicey.

Consider some examples of safe, pragmatic and reliable alternatives available for improving water management in Georgia that have much greater public benefit and far lower risks than ASR:

• Georgians actually use more water by burning electricity than by turning on the tap — at home and at work — because conventional forms of power generation (coal, oil and nukes) are so water-dependent, vaporizing hundreds of millions of gallons daily. Therefore, by simply improving tax incentives to reward energy-efficiency upgrades for homes and businesses, millions of gallons of water a day could be saved. And the need for more power for a growing population could be greatly reduced, cutting the costs of both brownouts and meeting future water demand.

• Implement water-cooling requirements for power plants that combine air and water to reduce water needs by hundreds of millions of gallons a day.

• Provide supporting tax credits to fast-track conversion to clean, water-free power sources such as solar and wind. By switching from water-wasting thermoelectric power plants to water-free power sources, enormous volumes of water could be wisely diverted to other needs supporting future growth.

Until state policies account for connections between power generation and water use, effective water management will remain elusive. And Georgia’s “toolbox” will be limited to a few risky and impractical devices such as ASR, unguided by accountable, comprehensive policy.

Responsible water management can never be achieved by limiting our options to politically convenient policies that are preferred by special interests. Prudent measures must be established that will improve water management with less cost to tax payers, lower environmental risk, and far greater reliability for water users.

David Kyler is the executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast.