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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.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. Maria, I agree that water conservation is critical part of the conversation that is seemingly being overlooked at the moment. Like Maria mentioned, there are many drawbacks to developing new reservoirs, some of them being the stiff and almost insurmountable legal challenges that would immediately arise from Alabama and Florida to any proposed reservoir in the Etowah and Chattahoochee watersheds and that they would take many, many years beyond the 2012 deadline to develop and construct. Though, we’ve got to understand that the main reasoning behind all of the recent talk of new reservoirs is to present an image to businesses around the world and in high-tax states looking to relocate to Sunbelt states that Atlanta and, by extension, Georgia, will remain economically viable beyond the 2012 date when Lake Lanier may become off-limits to much of Metro Atlanta beyond Buford and Gainesville. There HAS TO BE talk of new and continuing water sources for North Georgia to remain desirable for continued future business relocation and job growth especially with the intense competition for business and jobs from other Sunbelt and Southeastern locations from Virginia, to North Carolina, to South Carolina, to Tennessee, to Florida, to Alabama and on out to Texas. One of the main motivations for Alabama and Florida in the Water Wars is to get an upper hand economically on Atlanta and Georgia in the competition for business. If you’re Alabama or Florida and you’re trying to lure a business or businesses that are also looking at relocating or expanding operations in Georgia you can play the fact that Metro Atlanta doesn’t have continued access to Lake Lanier and may not have enough water for your business to operate and expand in the very near future. Your main competitors lack of certainty about continued access to something as basic and necessary as water gives you a tremendous advantage in economic competition. Believe me, extreme to exceptional water conservation measures are being seriously considered and planned for behind closed doors but are not being publicly or loudly played up by Georgia leaders so as not to give our Sunbelt competitors a clearly visible advantage, especially when neighboring cities and states are already trying to lure businesses by saying “Don’t go to Atlanta, come to [fill-in-the-blank] because we’ve got plenty of water”.Report

  2. Slugworth January 18, 2011 6:36 pm

    First, Mr. Wingate says new reservoirs need to be regional in nature. Fair enough. However, he then goes on to say that they should not include interbasin transfers. With 108 counties in two or more river basins, how can regional reservoirs not include the interbasin transfer of water? The enviros are being hypocritical here (no surprise). If you ban IBTs, each basin, each county and many cities will have to build their own reservoir (or two, or three, if they are split between basins). Think how harmful that would be to the critters.Report

  3. James R. Oxendine January 19, 2011 11:22 am

    Let us not forget the City of Atlanta reservoir slated for the former quarry in northwest Atlanta along the Atlanta Beltline.Report

  4. ChrisManganiello January 21, 2011 1:04 pm

    Per the comment by “Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn the lights off”

    I am not convinced that businesses are being swayed to neighboring states with the promise of water supplies. Maybe they are, but they are perhaps being misguided.

    All of our Sun Belt neighbors have their own water worries. NC and SC have tentatively resolved their own bi-state water war. The primary water users in those two states who are dependent on the Catawba River basin are well aware of the uncertain water future they face unless they make serious changes (i.e. conservation and efficiency). SC – well, perhaps their lured First Quality from Augusta to Anderson b/c of a much hyped metro-ATL IBT from Lakes Burton and/or Hartwell – but nobody has made that explicit claim. As for TN – would you want to locate in the TVA basin downstream of Chattanooga if you thought metro-ATL might deploy an IBT of hundreds of millions of gallons in the future? That leaves GA with their AL and FL neighbors – both of whom GA is mired in two water wars over the ACF and ACT basins.

    So which Sun Belt neighbors can legitimately lure investors from GA with promises of stable future water supplies?

    If GA-AL-FL are legitimately discussing conservation and efficiency as a part of resolving their water wars – more power to them – they should start talking about it publicly and make some political hay in the process. That would seem to put investors’ minds at ease as well by making it clear that GA takes water management and economic futures seriously, and not as a sign of competitive weakness.Report

  5. Virginia Wilkes February 5, 2011 12:00 pm

    Trying to continue expanding an area when renewable resources are almost depleted is perhaps an unwise thought process. An area can only do/ handle so much population – growth, living, dying, producing. The public and elected officials in Atlanta and Georgia needs to be made aware of this by apparently a more concise means. Atlanta and the surrounding area needs to come to terms with this concept if we are to continue to prosper. Politicians make all types of promises for growth. After a certain point this is just not responsibly possible. At that point there can be only constructive change and reworking of concepts and ideas, and ecologically sound use of available resources in such a way that they are not destroyed but are continually clean, available for use and reuse.Report


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