Editor’s Note: This is the second of three stories this week that will look at water issues that affect metro Atlanta. Click here to read the first in the series.
By David Pendered
Metro Atlanta probably celebrated too swiftly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year the region may continue to draw drinking water from Lake Lanier.
Though the ruling was rightly portrayed, by Georgians, as a major victory, the battle is far from over. The U.S. Senate toyed with the court’s ruling last month before it adopted omnibus water legislation. Water proposals abound in Georgia – where lakes are full six years after a governor led prayers for rain.
All of this results in water supply remaining one of the region’s major policy questions. Not to be overlooked are neighboring communities, and creatures, who rely on the same sources of water.
“We’re still no closer to resolution, even though the court said water supply is an authorized purpose, because we still have the issue coming up in different venues,” said Katherine Zitsch, director of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water District, which oversees water planning for 15 metro counties.
Prayer is one such venue. It wasn’t so long ago that a Georgia governor led a prayer service for rain.
In 2007, at the state Capitol, Gov. Sonny Perdue led a service to address the worst drought in decades. Hundreds attended to support the prayers led by Perdue, a Republican who grew up in a farming family in Middle Georgia.
“Oh father, we acknowledge our wastefulness,” Perdue said. “But we’re doing better. And I thought it was time to acknowledge that to the creator, the provider of water and land, and to tell him that we will do better.”
The service certainly galvanized public attention on the water plight facing drought-stricken southeastern states. One upshot was the sudden appearance of rain barrels and their recent endorsement by the Regional Business Coalition of Metro Atlanta. Other plans began surfacing, some very high-tech and one national in scope.
A proposal in southwest Georgia calls for pumping water from one aquifer to another and releasing it during times of drought into the Flint River. If it works, Atlanta and other users along the Chattahoochee River could increase their water use, because flow requirements for the Apalachicola River may be met by the aquifer storage and recovery program.
The ASR statute, which some compare to western-style water law, would be codified into state law if the Georgia General Assembly approves Senate Bill 213, which seeks to amend the Flint River Protection Act. The bill also sets a March 1 deadline for the Environmental Protection Division to predict a drought in any given year.
The Senate passed SB 213 with one dissenting vote, Sen. Jeff McKoon (R-Columbus). Environmental groups, including the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, lobbyied against the bill and it stalled in the House. There’s been some speculation that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. intended his remarks this month concerning Georgia’s water management, and its impact on the Apalachicola River and its seafood industry, to mobilize opposition to SB 213 when it comes back for debate in the 2014 legislative session.
Another state proposal would allow proceeds of state bonds and other money that’s earmarked for reservoir projects to be used for other ways to enhance water supplies. Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Atlanta) introduced House Bill 199 and the House passed it unanimously. The Senate saw things differently and voted to put HB 199 on the table, which means the Senate must vote affirmatively to bring it up for further consideration in 2014.
The national legislation is the one Zitsch is watching.
Notwithstanding the import of the local and state efforts to manage water resources, they pale in comparison to the Water Resources Development Act – a $12.5 billion spending proposal for flood control and mitigation, port improvements and other water-related projects.
Senators from Alabama and Florida tried to amend Senate Bill 601. Their goal was to insert language that would have compelled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to seek congressional approval for any requests for water that would have changed the storage plans for a federal reservoir by 5 percent or more. The move was aimed at Georgia’s water management policies.
The effort by Georgia’s competitors in the tri-state water war failed, and the Senate didn’t include it in the final version that was passed May 15. If the concept resurfaces and does become law, the measure will have trumped Georgia’s victory in the Supreme Court ruling. As it stands, the governors of Alabama, Floridan and Georgia remain the primary negotiators.
The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing in the House. Its fate is unclear due, in part, to the House’s stated concerns over spending.
Meanwhile, Zitsch also is keeping an eye on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps is in the process of rewriting the manual for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. This will be the first update since the 1950s, which was an era that preceded the population boom of metro Atlanta and regions that rely on the ACF system.
“Until the federal government settles it, or the corps does its work, we are just going to be always fighting this battle because water is a limited resource,” Zitsch said. “We have to use it wisely.”