Posted by: The Last Liberal Gwinnettian | October 6, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere, but not a Drop to Drink

Does everyone remember the panic of 2007? Lake Lanier, our primary source of water, was nearing critically low water levels. The daily paper featured a countdown of how many days of water were remaining. Suburban homeowners were forced to water their lawns in secret lest they be fined for violating water restrictions. It was horrible. Then the rains came. We even had a flood. Surely the crisis had passed. Except that judges ruled in 2009 that Georgia had until 2012 to find some alternative means of getting water, because Lake Lanier actually isn’t all ours.

This is an election year. Given that water is necessary for life, one would expect it to trump everything else, but it doesn’t. It’s obvious why: Since there is no longer an immediate water shortage, H2O no longer makes the headlines. It doesn’t get people to read the papers, and it certainly doesn’t earn votes.

Yet the fact remains that water is the one natural resource that we absolutely cannot survive without. And in just a few years time, unless something happens quickly, we could be facing a huge problem because the main source of water for 4 million people may no longer be available.

It all stems back to the creation of Lake Lanier. Lake Lanier was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. Its sole purpose was to provide hydroelectricity and flood control. It was never, ever intended to become Atlanta’s main water source.

Lake Lanier was completed in the late 1950s. In 1960, metro Atlanta had a population of approximately 1.6 million. While Atlanta drew water from the lake from virtually the day it was filled, the amount was negligible and the issue wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind. After all, in 1960, Atlanta was much smaller and less important to the nation as a whole than it is today.

Peace prevailed for a few decades. Then, beginning in the 1990s, during the height of Atlanta’s population growth, the Corps of Engineers, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama started fighting over the water.  Federal law mandates that when a river flows between two or more states, each state has a right to an equal share of the water. Additionally, other laws such as the Endangered Species Act require that water be available for threatened or endangered species that live in or around Chattahoochee River and Apalachicola Bay. But Atlanta, which had by this time roughly doubled in population, resented watching so much water flow into other states – the 3 million people in Atlanta were surely far more deserving of water than the endangered mussels in Alabama.

During the 1990s, Atlanta experienced unprecedented population growth. Atlanta’s infrastructure could hardly keep up with the growing demands. This is at the root of many of our problems – no one foresaw the exponential population growth, and so no one planned for it. Instead of planning for growth by building a good network of major roads, a strong public transit system, plenty of schools, and a reliable and sustainable source of water, Georgia officials were largely reactionary. As the population boomed, they were reduced to putting band aids over problems – and we still haven’t replaced our band aids with permanent solutions.

Then we arrived at 2007 and the horrible, grass killing drought. Sonny prayed about it – after, of course, checking to ensure that the National Weather Service predicted rain – but other than that, little real action was taken. Eventually, our dear governor appealed to President Bush to intervene. The whole issue blew over, never to be thought of again – until 2009 when a federal judge decided that unless Georgia gets special permission from Congress or reaches an agreement with Alabama and Florida, Georgia will have to return to mid-1970s levels of withdrawal from the lake. This is, as you can see, a bit of a problem. There are about twice as many people who need water now than there were in 1975. Moreover, each person now uses more water than in the 1970s, what with the invention of timed sprinkler systems and so on.

The implication of this problem is not so much that Atlantans will all be forced to bathe with rainwater and die of thirst – one would hope that someone would do something long before that – but that Georgia may lose even more jobs, even more revenue, even more funds than it already has. And THAT we cannot afford. In fact, Georgia’s water task force has already estimated that a failure to find a solution to this problem could result in a loss of $26 to $39 BILLION a year for Georgia’s businesses.

So what do we do about it? Not being an engineering genius or a water law guru, I honestly don’t have much of an answer. But it doesn’t bother me that I don’t have an answer – it bothers me that our gubernatorial candidates don’t seem to have much of one either.

Nathan Deal’s statement on water is simplest, so let’s begin there. Deal’s big idea is to build reservoirs – an idea that I like but which a) I don’t see how we would find funding, and b) experts have said that it is unlikely that enough reservoirs could be up and running before 2012. His backup plan is to negotiate with the new Florida and Alabama governors to protect Georgia’s water supply. The problem there is that Georgia is in a pretty bad bargaining position – the courts have already given Alabama and Florida exactly what they want, so they don’t really have much of an incentive to deal with us.

Roy Barnes’s statement is at least more long winded. Barnes cites an estimate that claims that we lose 10 to 30% of all water that enters the state water distribution systems because of old, inefficient or worn water infrastructure, and so he plans to fix it. This seems like a reasonable course of action, though as with Deal’s reservoirs, I question where we would find the funding. In addition to this, Barnes – like Deal – also wants to build reservoirs. Again, I agree that this is necessary for our long term growth, but I don’t know how we would pay for it or whether the reservoirs would be operational before we have to restrict the amount of water we draw from Lanier. Barnes does not overtly state that he would negotiate with Alabama and Florida, instead pointing out that if we can demonstrate our dedication to reducing our reliance on Lake Lanier, we are more likely to prevail in persuading Congress to help us out. This is, in my opinion, the most intelligent thing on either candidate’s water website.

God willing, someone, somewhere will figure out how to get us out of this conundrum. And with a little luck, maybe Georgia will learn from the past and address the mistakes we made during the height of our growth. It’s time to plan ahead to prevent problems instead of simply reacting to them.



  1. My solution: threats. No water, no Coca-Cola. Federal judges will have to bow to public pressure to allow us to draw more from Lanier, until we can get reservoirs built!

    (DISCLAIMER: just kidding, we seriously are in a tight spot, and I have no idea how to get us out of it)

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