By Guest Columnist SALLY BETHEA, founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper
What stimulated growth in the past no longer works in today’s regional economy. So said the Metro Atlanta Chamber as it recently announced a list of “five bold moves” in a new strategic economic plan entitled “Forward Atlanta.”
Yet, the plan’s single recommendation to solve the region’s ongoing water crisis is decidedly last-century, unsustainable and much too expensive in today’s economy – to build new dams and reservoirs.
There is nothing bold or new in damming streams and piping water from one river to another. These massive engineering projects do not create more water. Instead, they threaten to bankrupt communities, diminish water flow for downstream users through impoundment and evaporation and line the pockets of a few powerful consultants and political insiders.
In Cherokee County, there is a new reservoir (Hickory Log) that is full, but not yet delivering water to anyone, as there are no pipes to connect it to users in Cobb, Cherokee and the city of Canton.
In fact, there is no need for that water today, according to at least one county official, and Canton may never need that water. Unable to pay for other basic community services, the city is desperately trying to stop paying for its share of the cost, which spiraled out of control to $100 million, or five times what was originally projected. Construction of distribution pipes could double that cost.
Ground has not even been broken at the new reservoir at Hard Labor Creek in Walton County, largely because the (grossly exaggerated) population it was planned to serve never arrived. No people, no new revenue to pay the bonds issued. Yet existing taxpayers and ratepayers have already been saddled with significant costs and debt totaling $130 million.
The local governments are hoping the Gov. Nathan Deal’s new water supply fund will help bail them out.
Despite these cautionary tales, reservoir proponents are aggressively pushing for taxpayers and ratepayers to fund more new reservoirs in the metro region, including two that together could cost close to $900 million – Bear Creek reservoir in south Fulton County and Glades reservoir in Hall County.
Both are designed primarily to function as amenity lakes, increasing property values for new lakefront landowners, while destroying streams, wetlands and floodplains; and both fail to produce a single gallon of new water supply.
The Governor’s water supply fund is the heart of the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s new reservoir strategy. But that fund, projected to reach $300 million over several years of legislature-supported bond sales, is hardly sufficient to actually build much more than one “new reservoir.”
What it will fund are fees paid to a select group of powerful lawyers, lobbyists, and engineers who are promoting these reservoir projects.
Politically, legally and climatically, Georgia’s landscape has changed dramatically since a system of new reservoirs in north Georgia was first proposed in the late 1980s to satisfy Atlanta’s growing thirst. Those “new reservoirs” were said to be needed to supply water and electric power for a population that has not arrived, nor is expected to arrive for 40 to 50 years, if then.
Moreover, many of these new reservoirs were planned at the height of the tri-state water conflict, when the future use of Lake Lanier for additional water supply was in serious question. Given recent court and federal agency decisions, water supply is now a legally authorized use for Lake Lanier.
An excellent report recently released by the national nonprofit organization American Rivers confirms the financial and water resource risks that have moved reservoirs to the bottom of the list of water supply options.
The report notes that Georgia reservoir proposals on the drawing boards could collectively cost at least $10 billion, resulting in local governments going underwater with debt.
Click here to read: “Money Pit: The High Cost and High Risk of Water Supply Reservoirs in the Southeast.”
We agree with the Metro Chamber that Atlanta’s economy must be restarted with bold moves to show we are looking forward, and not backward.
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is helping lead the way with specific recommendations to reduce the region’s water footprint in our “Filling the Water Gap” report – an annual update on water conservation successes and missed opportunities in metro Atlanta. (And look for our 2012 update later this summer at: www.chattahoochee.org.
Let’s reject the solutions of the past and instead use our limited dollars on the more expedient, lower cost, lower-impact solutions at hand. We must improve the use of our existing water infrastructure and invest in incentives to use water more efficiently; we’ve made some progress in this area, but nowhere near what can be accomplished.
Sally Bethea is the founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization established in 1994 with more than 6,000 members throughout the river basin.