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Updated: 10:40 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012 | Posted: 10:26 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012

Georgia's water situation: Our future rides water’s wave

By Kevin Riley and  Editor

Gov. Nathan Deal spent last week highlighting his agenda for Georgia, delivering his State of the State speech and proposing a state budget.

His big proposals included initiatives aimed at education and economic development, and those things got lots of attention. But he also mentioned his plans to address Georgia’s water situation, a less glamorous but increasingly crucial matter.

When we last visited Georgia’s water supply predicament, a federal appeals court had bailed us out. Back in September the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused a request by Florida and Alabama to revisit another court’s ruling on the use of Lake Lanier as a source for metro Atlanta’s water.

That was a big day for Georgia, endorsing the state’s claim to water storage rights in Lake Lanier and clearing the way for the Army Corps of Engineers to determine how much of Lake Lanier’s water the metro area can safely use without harming downstream interests. It seems that in the short term, the supply will be adequate.

But the long-term outlook for Atlanta’s water supply remains complicated.

If you have time and a computer, you can find out just how complicated. With a few keystrokes online you can find almost endless reports, news stories, opinions, studies, committees and other information about Georgia and metro Atlanta’s water issues.

And because of the way our rivers flow, any water management decisions Georgia makes impact water in Alabama and Florida. Of course, folks in those states have their own sets of studies, reports, committees and opinions.

What you won’t find is agreement on what Georgia should do.

As Mark Twain said: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

There are a couple of premises everyone can agree on:

● The population of Georgia and metro Atlanta will continue to grow, and therefore water demand will increase.

● Over the long term, steps have to be taken to assure an adequate supply. Doing nothing will eventually lead to a crisis — although when that crisis would hit is a matter of debate.

Before Georgia got the favorable court ruling, that crisis was imminent, because an earlier ruling said we had no right to Lake Lanier for drinking water.

That prompted a flurry of activity, and it created the hope that the three states would negotiate some kind of settlement. The states didn’t. A plan all three can support is viewed by many as the best — if perhaps unlikeliest — way to resolve the matter.

One of the biggest forces in the discussion is the business community. Atlanta’s business leaders see doubts about the reliability and quality of the water supply as lethal to business expansion and attraction.

It’s hard to argue with that. What company is going to locate or expand in Atlanta if they’re concerned about water supply or the cost of water? How would they attract employees if Atlanta acquires a reputation for water problems?

Many of Atlanta’s competitors for economic development already boast huge, reliable water supplies. That’s true in the Great Lakes states, a region where Atlanta has long been successful in luring business south.

Gov. Deal has put the state in the business of water project investment, a change in the traditional approach whereby the state was simply a regulator on water issues. He’s made money available that local governments can access to build reservoirs.

The reservoir approach — backed by Deal and some business interests — is also a complicated matter. Reservoirs are expensive, controversial and take a long time to build. They involve permitting, financing and land use matters — and possibly lawsuits from any number of interests, including environmentalists.

Opponents argue that the state could do more to conserve and better manage water — and that reservoirs, if they are necessary, should be appropriately placed, not just built where local government is willing.

Backing reservoirs could be politically risky.

The pitch to the public, which would still be turning on the faucet and getting reasonably priced water, ultimately would come down to this:

“We need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a controversial project to avert a crisis that might not come for 20 years or so. And many people disagree with this plan.”

No wonder Georgia has avoided this issue for so long.

No wonder Georgia’s political leaders have avoided this issue for so long.

Deal’s ideas might not be the best, or ultimate, answer. But if they get us moving, that would be good. Whether you agree or disagree with his proposals, at least the governor is keeping water on Georgia’s mind.

Join The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Editor Kevin Riley on Facebook to get inside access and an insider’s view. Visit www.facebook.com/ajceditor.

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