River raid in the works? by Joe Cook

Georgia task force publicly softens threat of water supply grab, but continued vigilance is appropriate.

Decisions made in panic mode rarely produce desirable outcomes. It’s why quarterbacks throw more interceptions when they’re about to be sacked.

In July, a federal court judge threw an all-out blitz on the state of Georgia by ruling that Metro Atlanta does not have the right to continue present water withdrawals from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee.

Now the question is: Will the state pick up the blitz and complete the pass?

Based on the conclusions of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s 80-member Water Contingency Task Force, which met for the last time Dec. 11, if the state of Georgia did not throw a touchdown, it did, at least, pick up the first down.

Appointed by the governor in October, the task force was charged with coming up with proposals to meet Metro Atlanta’s water needs in the event that the ruling goes into effect in 2012. Should this come to pass, Metro Atlanta would see water withdrawals from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee revert back to 1970s levels — an event that would be catastrophic for the region.

After reviewing multiple solutions to this catastrophe, the task force settled primarily on water conservation measures and backed off plans to pipe water from across the state to Metro Atlanta, including a scheme to stick a straw in the Tennessee River and pipe 250 million gallons a day 100 miles to Metro Atlanta.

It seems the task force heard the outcry from across the state (and outside the state), which went something like, “Metro Atlanta: Keep your hands off our water!”

The task force also put on the back burner plans to pipe some 150 million gallons a day from the Savannah River, which Georgia shares with South Carolina.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, these water grab plans won’t go away, and if you dig deeper into the task force findings, there’s plenty to warrant vigilance on the part of Tennessee and every other community in Georgia whose water has been coveted by Metro Atlanta.

Of the 62 task force members who responded to a survey designed to identify the best water supply options, 45 agreed that “temporary” water transfers were an acceptable means of meeting Metro Atlanta’s water needs. In a related question, only 20 agreed that water should never be transferred to Metro Atlanta from outside the area. That’s only 20 out of 62 who agree with Tennessee’s Rep. Mike Bell that giving away water is “not negotiable.”

Furthermore, the task force seemed reluctant to endorse mandatory conservation measures, preferring instead incentive-based programs. This doesn’t bode well for aggressive conservation and efficiency — the quickest, most cost-effective way of securing new water and avoiding water transfers.

Bear in mind that 75 percent of the task force hails from Metro Atlanta and that these individuals are, by and large, politically connected and influential. Then you get an idea of what direction the Georgia General Assembly might move as it considers the recommendations of the task force beginning in January.

Georgia legislators might attempt to dismantle a major roadblock to water transfers in Georgia: an amendment tucked into a 2001 law that created the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, which reads, “The district shall neither study nor include in any plan any interbasin transfer of water from outside the district area.”

In fact, the task force acknowledged this needed legislative change in its findings. And, Gov. Perdue has said that while a Tennessee River water transfer is at the bottom of any water supply list, Georgia will do “what it takes to get water supply — from desalination to transfers from wherever.”

Tennesseans should know that there will be a groundswell of opposition in Georgia to any such effort. A movement is under way already, led by the Georgia Water Coalition, to end the threat of water grabs in Georgia. That effort includes legislation to address this contentious issue that threatens to divide our state and make enemies of our neighbors. Georgians are already signing an online petition at www.nowatergrabs.com.

Water transfers threaten the economic future of downstream communities and the natural heritage of our region. Communities in Georgia and Tennessee should not be asked to sacrifice their future and their rivers to facilitate Metro Atlanta’s continued growth.

The task force’s conclusions show that Georgians can meet their water needs without raiding Tennessee, but if I’m a Tennessee armchair quarterback concerned about my river and my future, I’ll applaud the task force’s “first-down pass” and remain vigilant.

Joe Cook is executive director and riverkeeper of Coosa River Basin Initiative in Rome, Ga. Readers may write to him at jcook@coosa.org.

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One Response to River raid in the works? by Joe Cook

  1. Emily says:

    This is an issue everyone in this part of the country needs to be watching. How much do the folks already living in a region have to give up in order for more people to move into the area? Who benefits and who loses? Emily Lewy

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