Despite drawbacks, top Georgia leaders pushing idea of new metro water reservoirs
First in a two-part series. Check this space next week for part two.
All too often, group think takes over.
And today’s group think is about reservoirs. There’s a growing urgency that metro Atlanta needs to build new reservoirs to secure its future water supply as well as position itself for new economic growth.
In just the last couple of weeks, newly-elected Gov. Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber have endorsed the idea of building new reservoirs in Georgia.
But as in most cases of group think, it’s critically important for us to weigh all the issues involved. And building new reservoirs is no slam dunk.
At a recent talk to the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta, Mayor Reed was asked about the region’s future water supply.
“Atlanta is going to play a role in fulfilling its needs, which is reservoir-based. We are 12 years behind,” Reed said, adding that former Gov. Roy Barnes had had a plan for several major reservoirs, but those plans were shelved when he lost his re-election.
The City of Atlanta actually owns a large piece of property in north Georgia known as Dawson Forest that developers have been drooling after to build a reservoir in return for being able to develop lake front homes on that land.
“We are going to play a role in partnership with the governor,” Reed told Kiwanians. “We are willing to do what is hard and get on with it. Atlanta owns one of the most attractive pieces of land for a reservoir. We have 10,000 acres — the Dawson property. You can take 2,000 acres of that for a reservoir.”
After his talk, I asked Mayor Reed how committed he was to building a reservoir on the city land and whether he had any concerns about the environmental consequences.
“I’m ready to be part of Gov. Deal’s plans to solve our water problems. We have to be a part of Georgia’s solution on our water resources issues,” Reed said.
Then the mayor added: “That does not mean I walk away from my commitment to the environment and sustainability. It means that Atlanta is ready to come to the table. I’m not going to stand on the sidelines when we own one of the best pieces of property for a reservoir.”
The groundswell for reservoirs continued last week when Gov. Deal recommended in his state of the state address that Georgia spends $300 million over the next four years for new reservoirs and expansion. He also proposed $46 million in bond funding for the plan.
That was immediately embraced by the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
“Gov. Deal’s recommendation for $300 million over four years to fund reservoirs is a sign of strong leadership,” Williams said. “We are proud of the strong stance he has taken, and we encourage the legislature to pass this funding in its budget.”
Hold on guys. Not so fast.
A reservoir at Dawson Forest has numerous environmental issues, beginning with its impact on three different endangered species of darters. To build a reservoir on that land, it would need federal approval, and that could be hard to come by.
A reservoir there also could damage the fragile water negotiations between Georgia and Alabama.
“The last thing you want to do right now is to tell Alabama that you are planning to dam up 2,000 acres of water that now flows to their board and send it down the Chattahoochee,” said Will Wingate, vice president of advocacy and land conservation for the Georgia Conservancy. “And right now that’s a prohibition of inter-basin transfers in metro Atlanta, and this would be 100 million gallons a day.”
Contrary to common perception, Dawson Forest was purchased with aviation funds for a possible second airport. So if the city were to sell the land, the money would go back to the airport’s coffers and not to the City of Atlanta. So this would not be a way to help ease the city’s budget problems.
Currently, four different developers are negotiating with the City of Atlanta to get the rights to build the reservoir and develop the property. Apparently, the idea would be to convert 2,000 acres for the reservoir, about 4,000 acres would be preserved and the rest would go for new development and a small two-runway airport.
“The Dawson Forest is a very special piece of property,” Wingate said. “In north Georgia, we don’t have such large pieces of intact property. Ideally, we could buy it from the aviation authority and permanently preserve it.”
The property also has another major drawback.
“We think it’s a bad idea to put a drinking water reservoir within such close proximity to a nuclear radiation site,” Wingate said.
Clearly, a water clock is ticking away in metro Atlanta. Eighteen months ago, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that if thee is no tri-state water allocation agreement between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, by 2012, Magnuson has said the region’s withdrawals from Lake Lanier will roll back to the levels of four decades ago.
Environmentalists believe there are several ways to address our potential water needs, beginning with increased water conservation as the first and most important step.
“We do have to address water supply,” Wingate said. “Conservation needs to continue. We need to expand existing reservoirs to their full capacity before we build new ones. And if we are going to build new reservoirs, we have to make sure they are off the main stem of a river and make sure there are no inter-basin transfers involved.”
Wingate also said that any new reservoirs need to be regional and there needs to be a large buffer of green between any development and the water reservoir.
Reservoirs also are not the panacea that group think seems to believe.
“We’ve got to stress how expensive these reservoirs are,” Wingate said. Apparently, the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir that has been put on hold by bonds have already been sold , and Walton and Oconee counties are having to pay off those bonds on a reservoir that’s not even operational.
Also, metro Atlanta’s need to have a secure water source is immediate, and any new reservoir could take a decade to build. “There is no reservoir you can build right now to meet Judge Magnuson’s deadline.”
So as we move forward to solve our water supply issues, let’s do it with eyes wide open — knowing the benefits and consequences of every option.
And once we do just that, we may realize that the group think on reservoirs is not the right way to go.
Next week: understanding the difference between good reservoirs and bad reservoirs.