Georgia’s water woes a critical issue in current gubernatorial campaign

By Guest Columnist ALLISON KELLY, senior vice president of the Georgia Conservancy.

For decades, Georgia’s environmental community has urged the state’s top elected officials to take water issues seriously.

In the 2009 state legislature, water yet again took a back seat to matters deemed more critical, such as the economy, education and immigration.

All that changed last summer, when federal judge Paul Magnuson ruled that metro Atlanta has no legal authority to draw drinking water from Lake Lanier. It was a shot across the bow that catapulted water from the sidelines to center stage among those now running to replace Sonny Perdue for governor.

The three candidates left standing after last week’s primary – Roy Barnes, Nathan Deal and Karen Handel – have all put water issues out front in ways we’ve never seen before in a gubernatorial election.

Consider Roy Barnes, the Democratic nominee for governor. On his campaign website, Barnes puts the focus on getting Georgians back to work. But notice how he does it:

“To make Georgia work, we must focus on water, education and transportation,” he says.

That’s right, water comes first on his list. Elsewhere on the site, Barnes frames the water issue in stark economic terms.

“The availability of abundant, clean water has become as important in Georgia as the availability of other natural resources, such as gas and coal,” Barnes says. “Today, when businesses consider expanding or relocating to Georgia, ‘water’ is at the top of their checklists.”

On the other side of the political aisle stands Nathan Deal, arguably the most conservative of the three remaining candidates. In June, Deal staunchly favored so-called interbasin transfers – moving water from one river basin to another – in order to accommodate Atlanta’s growing water needs.

The Georgia Conservancy and other environmental groups have been extremely wary of this practice. The Conservancy believes the state should consider interbasin transfers only after (1) strong conservation and efficiency measures are in place; (2) an aggressive reduction goal is met, and; (3) a full assessment of the environmental impact is conducted for giving and receiving river basins.

In recent interviews with newspaper reporters in Atlanta and Augusta, however, Deal appears to have changed his tune.

“As governor, I would never support policies that would divert water from any basin for the purpose of sending it downriver into another region. Absolutely not.”

On her campaign website, Karen Handel says Georgia must adopt a statewide water plan and urges the state to pursue aggressive conservation efforts.

While we applaud the candidates for elevating water issues to the fore, they don’t always get it right. Take, for example, proposals to flood thousands of acres in north Georgia to build reservoirs that feed a growing and thirsty Atlanta. We believe that costly new reservoirs should only be built as a last resort, after all conservation, storage and supply alternatives have been addressed.

We’ve come a long way in the past few years. Until recently, most people viewed water as a virtually unlimited resource. No more, thanks to the punishing droughts we have endured throughout the decade, and Judge Magnuson’s ruling.

We’ve already made big strides on the policy front. Earlier this year, the Georgia General Assembly passed a sweeping water conservation law that bans daytime outdoor watering and requires “high-efficiency” toilets, faucets and shower heads in new construction.

Our three candidates for governor may disagree on how to bring more jobs to Georgia or how to fund a quality education for our kids.

But one thing is clear: water stewardship has emerged as a top issue for all three candidates. And that’s a win for Georgia, no matter who is victorious in November.

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