Editor’s Note: This is the first of three stories this week that will look at water issues affecting metro Atlanta.
By David Pendered
Maybe it was just the comments about metro Atlanta’s water usage by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. that triggered the outcry.
Or it could have been a story in The New York Times, which ran a few days earlier, on the potential demise of the seafood industry in Apalachicola Bay. One factor cited was a shortage of fresh water entering the bay from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee Flint river system.
Taken separately or collectively, the comments by Kennedy and the Times piece alarmed some business and government leaders involved in the management of metro Atlanta’s water resources. The ruckus reminds that despite full lakes, the region and Georgia are in a pivotal moment concerning long-term water issues.
Just a small handful of those issues include:
- The current update of the 1950s-era Army Corps of Engineers’ water control manual for managing water flow and other issues. An important report was released in March;
- The mandated update by 2014 of the 15-county water plan by Metropolitan North Georgia Water District;
- Georgia’s decision to fund and build additional reservoirs, a policy that’s strongly protested by environmental groups including the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper;
- Pending legislation in Congress and the Georgia Legislature that pertains to water management policies.
Kennedy got a lot of attention when he opined this month that environmental concerns don’t get enough attention in the tri-state water war. Kennedy, the president of the board of the Waterkeeper Alliance, spoke as he traveled in Georgia to the alliance’s annual meeting at Callaway Gardens.
“When Atlanta and the state of Georgia and Alabama and Florida struggle over competing claims to the water flows, we have to also consider the impacts on the aquatic ecosystem, not just for the sake of the oysters and fisheries… but also for the human populations and the giant economic engines” they support, Kennedy said in an Associated Press story.
To Kennedy’s point, the environment is not the top issue cited by the public in a recent federal report. However, the environment is ranked among the top three issues in public comments gathered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and released in a March report. The top concerns were:
- Water management recommendations – calling for a balancing of water needs along the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system;
- Socioeconomics and recreation – calling for consideration of adverse economic situations that result from low water levels in lakes, and the, “potential for collapse of the seafood and fishing industry in the Apalachicola Bay region;”
- Biological resources – flow concerns for the Apalachicola Bay and other biologic and fishery issues.
Kennedy’s comments prompted the Regional Business Coalition of Metro Atlanta to swing into action. Terry Lawler, the group’s executive director, responded directly to Kennedy’s contention in a statement Lawler distributed around the state. The headline reads: “RFK, Jr. Statements on Water and Oysters Are All Wet,” followed by a 750-word statement that begins:
“In recent newspaper articles and interviews, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., president of the Waterkeepers Alliance, made some factually incorrect statements about water use in Georgia as well as metro Atlanta’s and Georgia’s ongoing efforts to conserve and protect our water resources.”
Katherine Zitsch, who in January became the director of the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District, said she thinks the region does not receive due credit for water conservation efforts implemented over the past decade.
“We are committed to water conservation and that message is getting overlooked, Zitsch said. “The good work we’re doing, and have done, is not coming out anywhere.
“I don’t think where we are today is the end game in water conservation,” Zitsch said. “I think it is an ever-evolving process as technology improves and we educate the public. In July, we roll out another water conservation campaign. It’s one of the many things we are working on to change water consumption practices.”
Sally Bethea, the founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said she doesn’t see a reason for the recent uproar.
“Robert Kennedy was talking very generally about the importance of all stakeholders in the river basin working together,” Bethea said. “I think he noted accurately that all too often environmental quality is not given enough attention in decisions about river basins.
“I’m puzzled by the defensiveness of some metro boosters,” Bethea said. “Indeed, over the last decade, metro Atlanta has taken some important steps to conserve water…. But we still have a lot more to do.”