Future of metro Atlanta’s water should be a balance between the economy and the environment

By Guest Columnist JOHN BROCK, chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE)

Delivery of water to taps is an unseen but critical activity. It is not experienced every day like transportation congestion or air quality warnings. We are only sporadically reminded of our water needs when a drought hits, a pipe bursts or a boil-water advisory is issued. All are temporary. All are resolved in a relatively short time frame.

However, when weighing the acute loss of 250 million gallons per day coming in July 2012, a result of Judge Paul Magnuson’s order, and the long-term supply needs for an additional 4 million people over the next 30 years, there is not one solution that fits. In fact, the solution mix is diverse and each option has pros and cons.

Consider water conservation. Metro Atlanta has long engaged in conservation and efficiency measures, and has implemented conservation activities over the last decade that will save 118 million gallons a day by 2035. Examples include fixture retrofits, toilet rebate programs, leak abatement and countless others. Forward progress continues.

The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District is considering more requirements to save an additional 20 million gallons a day. These efforts are vitally important and can be quick to implement, but they come with real costs. Water rates are increased, utilities have decreased revenue and large scale capital projects are initiated further impacting rate structures. Importantly, we know that conservation alone will not solve our water crisis.

We must then turn toward increasing our supplies. Gov. Nathan Deal quickly set an ambitious agenda with the issuance of an executive order forming the Water Supply Task Force as well as an appropriation of $300 million over four years for reservoir funding.

Our water issues are not due to a lack of rainfall, but due to storage constraints and federal management decisions. Georgia and metro Atlanta are water-rich, receiving over 50 inches of rainfall on average. Most of this rainfall slides past the region, collected by six river basins, and sent to our neighboring states or the coast.

Capturing excess rainfall is key to our success. Based on experience, execution of a reservoir project can take between 10 and 20 years, which is proof on why planning, investment and implementation must start today, not tomorrow.

Delaying infrastructure improvements, like reservoirs, just further hinders the region and places undue stress on our citizens and downstream communities during times of drought. Now is the time for action as Gov. Deal has called for in addition to his predecessors.

Strategic new supplies will need to be located in appropriate geographic locations and must consider the needs of a community, county or region. Gone are the days of large-scale reservoir or infrastructure projects initiated by one local authority.

The time has arrived where water supply projects will become regionally significant and require partnerships among multiple jurisdictions. Further, given the current economic downturn and the impact to local governments, we need to encourage public private partnerships to leverage public dollars with private equity.

Like conservation, though, building new supplies is critical, but comes with a cost. Water rates are increased, environmental concerns must be mitigated and downstream communities must be protected.

In the end, both avenues for sustainable water supplies must be pursued. Neither effort should be demonized. Both have merit that come with sacrifice. Metro Atlanta must continue to tighten its belt and lead nationally on conservation and efficiency efforts.

At the same time, we can no longer wait for a court, Congress or our neighbors to achieve our goal of sustainable long-term water supplies. Meeting this goal will ensure that metro Atlanta and Georgia remain economically competitive on a national and global stage.

A local landmark for metro Atlanta is the Darlington sign on Peachtree proclaiming the current population of metro Atlanta. For native Atlantans, they remember when the sign flipped the 1 million mark in the 1960s.

Progress came to Atlanta through air, rail, road and our enviable success has led our population to grow to over 5.7 million people by today’s sign count. Like most growing metropolitan communities, investment in our infrastructure has been at a slower pace than our growth and we are juggling how to make these necessary investments at a time of economic downturn.

We grew along ridgelines and railways, not riverbasins, and balancing conservation and capture is critical. Difficult and complex decisions must be made now when considering our water future. It is time to stop dreaming of our future and start progress.

2 replies
  1. Ben Emanuel says:

    I commend Mr. Brock for his attention to both sides of the water supply coin, as it were — i.e., both increased efficiency and increased reservoir storage capacity — as well as his noting the importance of public costs in this discussion as Georgia weighs its options. It is, however, a serious omission to leave out any comparison of the public costs for increased water efficiency versus the development of new reservoirs. It is true, as Brock notes, that improvements in efficiency “come with real costs,” but these costs pale in comparison to the massive public costs of building new reservoirs.
    It is also misleading to imply that “large scale capital projects are initiated” more quickly when we invest in efficiency. In fact, the opposite is true: a municipal water utility that sees its customers’ water demand decrease through efficiency measures is able to postpone large-scale capital projects such as water treatment capacity expansion, savings its ratepayers — residents, businesses and institutions — great sums of money until such time as the infrastructure upgrade is in fact needed.
    I agree that a balanced approach to water supply planning is needed; such an approach is only enriched by a clear-eyed look at public costs which really should be de riguer in the economic conditions facing our state and nation now.Report

  2. Gerald Burden says:

    In addition to adding reservoirs that capture rainfall, water well fields need to be developed to tap into groundwater. Aquifers not only can provide supplemental supplies of water but they can also act as underground water reservoirs when, during wet years, excess surface water can be injected back into the aquifers for future use without loss to evaporation. .Report


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