Task force: Lake Lanier is Atlanta region's best bet for drinking water

Georgia should continue to fight to keep Lake Lanier as the Atlanta region’s main source of drinking water while aggressively conserving water, a state task force recommended to Gov. Sonny Perdue on Tuesday.

The other options Perdue’s Water Contingency Task Force has considered -- including expanding reservoirs -- could cost billions of dollars.

And none of those ideas would close the gap in drinking water the region would face in July 2012 if a federal judge’s ruling is allowed to stand in the decades-old water rights dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

“As the governor has said repeatedly, using Lake Lanier for water supply is our most cost-effective and environmentally friendly option,” John Brock and Tim Lowe, the task force’s co-chairmen, wrote in an opinion piece in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Last week, the governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida had a very productive meeting toward reaching a water-sharing agreement. If an agreement is reached and full access to Lanier for water supply is granted, there will obviously be no need for a contingency plan.”

After meeting behind closed doors this month, Perdue and his counterparts in Alabama and Florida said they would direct their teams of negotiators to come up with a proposed compact between the three states. Perdue, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist didn’t offer specifics about what that compact would say. But they said any such agreement must be sent to their state legislatures and ultimately to Congress for consideration.

Georgia must work out a water-sharing agreement with Florida and Alabama by July 2012 or it will see its supply of drinking water from Lake Lanier reduced substantially. The Army Corps of Engineers has announced it will tighten the spigot at the federal reservoir then to comply with a federal judge’s order in the tri-state water dispute, unless such an agreement is reached.

In his July ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson said the corps has permitted Georgia communities to withdraw water from the reservoir for decades, even though Congress didn’t authorize its construction for that purpose. Magnuson has given the states and Congress three years to decide how the reservoir should be used before restricting access to the lake to levels from the mid-1970s, when Atlanta was a fraction of its size. The task force is recommending that Georgia continue to appeal the judge’s ruling.

Also among the task force’s recommendations are some that could require action by the state Legislature:

  • Pass a state law that would require local governments to create voluntary or required water efficiency programs involving "fixture retrofits, sub-metering and cooling tower standards."
  • Fix leaks. The task force says a law could be passed requiring annual water-loss audits.

The panel is also suggesting being more aggressive with water conservation pricing, which discourages wasteful water use through a tiered pricing system. The other options the task force has studied would not be implemented until 2015 or 2020 and would involve several measures, including limiting outdoor watering and expanding reservoirs.

“The task force has done a tremendous job of analyzing all possible options and providing fact-based feedback that will drive the decisions we make moving forward,” Perdue said.

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