By Guest Columnist LAUREN JOY, an associate attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center

In 2011, many Atlantans were relieved by the court determination that water supply was an authorized purpose of Lake Lanier.  Despite this “win” for Atlanta in the Tri-State Water Wars, we must continue to treat water supply as an ongoing and important issue for Atlanta and the state.

The “Water Wars” are far from over, and the best step we can take to secure and sustain our state’s water supplies is to improve our statewide water planning efforts.

Improving these efforts should include taking advantage of water conservation and efficiency opportunities before throwing more taxpayer money at new reservoirs, speculative aquifer storage and recovery projects, or new interbasin transfers of water.

Lauren Joy
Lauren Joy

One opportunity to prioritize conservation and efficiency is to focus on fixing leaks in the state’s water supply systems.  Many public water systems spend thousands of dollars to pump and treat water from our rivers and aquifers, only to lose that water through rusty pipes or other outdated infrastructure.

By March 1, 2013, all of Georgia’s public water systems serving more than 3,300 individuals are required to submit water loss audits to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). Over 250 Georgia water providers are required to submit audits, as mandated by the 2010 Water Stewardship Act.

Although the Act was passed on the heels of Judge Paul Magnuson’s district court ruling in 2009 that Lake Lanier was not authorized for water supply, which was overturned by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals two years later, the state must continue to implement and enforce the Stewardship Act’s requirements.  EPD must hold firm to its deadlines to receive audit results from local utilities, and to provide those results to the public.

In addition, Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA), and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) should open up the Governor’s Water Supply Program to allow direct investment and loans for conservation and efficiency projects.

Like the Water Stewardship Act, the Governor’s Water Supply Program was established prior to the court decision authorizing Lake Lanier as a water supply for the Atlanta region.

In early 2011, Gov. Deal committed to spending $300 million over four years to develop new sources of water supply in Georgia but declined to include conservation and efficiency projects in the program.

In the first round of funding, loans and grants were primarily given to expensive reservoirs and speculative aquifer storage and recovery projects.   The second round of funding applications for the Water Supply Program remains open through April 30, 2013.

If conservation and efficiency projects qualified, they could be prioritized over new and unneeded reservoirs or aquifer storage and recovery projects, particularly given the low-hanging fruit of fixing system leaks around the state (which, by the way, will also provide numerous jobs).

In a step forward for continuing statewide water planning, the governor, EPD and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce have advocated for a FY 2014 budget allocation of $500,000 for Regional Water Councils.

The passage of Georgia’s 2008 Comprehensive State-wide Water Management Plan established Regional Water Councils to develop local water plans, including estimates of current and future water needs, water resource assessments, and best management practices.

The FY 2014 budget allocation for the Regional Water Councils would be used to support additional meetings and grants for water monitoring activities to be matched by local governments.  If approved, this additional funding should allow the Regional Water Councils to continue working toward local and river-basin specific water management goals.

Georgia needs to rediscover statewide water planning.  The continued push for new reservoirs around metro Atlanta (there are roughly a dozen proposals currently under consideration), along with ongoing efforts to move billions of gallons of water to Atlanta from Tennessee, continues even while we have yet to realize the full potential of conservation and efficiency, or make full use of our existing reservoirs for water supply, most notably Lake Lanier.

The state needs to examine all water supply options and prioritize the most cost-effective alternatives, along with preserving and sustaining Georgia’s waterways for future generations.

The fact that these myriad reservoir and interbasin transfer proposals continue to move forward with little to no coordination speaks to the comprehensive water planning vacuum that continues to exist in Georgia.   The state adopted a water plan in 2008, but without the force of law, this plan has only brought piecemeal advances in water management. We can do better.

Georgia has made progress in the past 10 years on water policy, including the work of the Regional Water Councils and the passage of the 2010 Water Stewardship Act.  These accomplishments are laudable, but we will continue to face water supply challenges in Georgia.

We must keep moving forward by prioritizing conservation and efficiency, rather than building more reservoirs or inviting more water wars with neighboring states.

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