Decades before water wars, Buford Dam won city support, not finances

It was a straightforward suggestion and one that would resonate for decades to come.

If Congress was about to start spending money in earnest for the “Buford Project,” why shouldn’t Atlanta make a “substantial contribution” to it as well? The proposed dam north of the city would create an enormous lake and make it possible to harness the Chattahoochee River. The river would become more navigable, and the dam would blanket the region with cheap hydropower.

It would also, a key House Appropriations subcommittee noted in a 1948 report, provide a “greatly needed” source of water to a metro area that was growing by leaps and bounds. Shouldn’t Atlanta make a contribution comparable to the benefits the dam would bring?

It was here that Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield made an uncharacteristic miscalculation, one that would throw his city and the entire Southeast into turmoil many decades later. Last week, a federal judge gave Georgia, Alabama and Florida three years to broker a water-sharing plan before he orders “draconian” cuts to Atlanta’s water supply.

Six decades ago, Hartsfield knew that Buford Dam and its vast reservoir would be invaluable to his “showcase city of the South.” He shuttled back and forth to Washington to lobby for the dam, often with key Georgia business leaders in tow.

But now, Georgia Congressman James C. Davis relayed the subcommittee’s request to Hartsfield. Such monetary contributions by cities were not unprecedented, Davis wrote the mayor on Feb. 27, 1948. Dallas had just contributed $2.1 million for a reservoir in Texas.

Davis told Hartsfield he’d try to convince the subcommittee’s chairman “that he does not have to deal with us like a field hand pricing a grand piano.” The chairman should know “that he is dealing with a responsible people who can and will deal with the government on a just and equitable basis.”

Hartsfield, with a finely tuned political radar that rarely failed him, was a true visionary. After all, he was the man who turned the site of a dirt auto track into the world’s busiest airport. But this time, perhaps, Hartsfield did not think the matter through well enough.

He fired back a quick reply — a response that would be cited 61 years later by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson who ruled July 17 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was illegally reallocating Lake Lanier’s water to meet the needs of 3.5 million metro residents.

“Frankly, in our zeal I think we have just laid too much emphasis on the Chattahoochee as a water supply,” Hartsfield wrote. “In our case the benefit is only incidental and in case of a prolonged drought. The city of Atlanta has many sources of potential water supply in North Georgia. Certainly a city which is only one hundred miles below one of the greatest rainfall areas in the nation will never find itself in the position of a city like Los Angeles.”

Even though the city wiggled out of investing in the dam — and becoming a financial stakeholder in it — Congress ultimately funded it. It was completed in 1960 at a cost of $47 million.

Atlanta also would get the water. But the question now is for how much longer. In his order, Magnuson said Atlanta must stop using Lake Lanier as its primary source for water supply if Congress does not approve a new water allocation plan by 2011. “Atlanta did not contribute to the construction costs of the Buford Dam,” Magnuson noted.

Buford Dam had been in the making since the 1920s, when Congress asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine hydropower projects on national waterways, including those in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.

By 1938, the Corps prepared a report with suggested dams, including the “Roswell site” that would become the home of Buford Dam. In the report, the Corps detailed the site’s potential benefits. “There is apparently no immediate necessity for increased water supply in this area,” the Corps noted, “though the prospect of a future demand is not improbable.”

At that time, the Chattahoochee River was both a blessing and a curse. It provided water to metro area’s 575,000 residents.

But heavy rains sent flood waters down the river that swallowed up small communities and farmland along the Chattahoochee. And droughts lowered the river to such a trickle you could walk across it on the exposed rocks. Congress was frequently reminded of the great drought of 1925, when Atlanta had to ration its water and close down power plants that took cooling water from the river.

The Buford Dam would regulate water flow and prevent this from ever happening again.

Hartsfield, first elected mayor in 1937, had brought Atlanta back from near financial ruin. When he took office, the city was $3 million in debt and teetering toward bankruptcy. Some city officials were being paid with scrip.

But Hartsfield ushered through a model budget law that vastly improved the city’s financial standing and catapulted its credit ratings.

Mercurial, exacting and impulsive, Hartsfield presided over Atlanta as if it were his own prized possession. He mounted a police radio in his car and rode around town at all hours of the night. He cleaned up corruption at the Police Department and proposed annexing large chunks of land because he reckoned anyone would jump at the chance to live within Atlanta’s city limits.

As development of the much-coveted Buford Dam progressed, Hartsfield appeared to shift his position on the project’s importance of being a vital source of Atlanta’s water supply. He no longer de-emphasized that potential role.

By 1951, about $2 million had been spent on preliminary construction. But the House Appropriations Committee balked at spending anything more.

Incredulous, Hartsfield intensified his lobbying efforts. And during his annual address to the City Council he tried to marshal as much support as he could for the dam’s construction, Hartsfield’s biographer, Harold Martin, wrote years after the mayor’s death in 1971.

It hinged, Hartsfield told the council, on “this matter of future water supply upon which the very life or death of our community depends.”

The question of Atlanta’s contribution to the costs of the dam resurfaced during House appropriations hearings in 1951.

One representative in particular honed in on the fact Atlanta put no money into the project. That congressman, Gerald Ford of Michigan, would later become the nation’s 38th president.

During the 1951 hearings, Ford asked whether communities that stand to benefit from a water supply project typically make a contribution to it.

That’s normally the case, just not in this one, a Corps official replied. Ford then presciently posed another question as if he knew what would come to pass.

“Is it not conceivable in the future, though,” Ford wondered, “when this particular project is completed, that the city of Atlanta will make demands on the Corps because of the needs of the community, when at the same time it will be for the best interests of the overall picture ... to retain water in the reservoir?”

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How we got the story

This story was developed through court motions and U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson’s order in the tri-state water litigation; transcripts of congressional hearings from the 1940s and 1950s; court exhibits which include correspondence to and from former Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield; interviews; “William B. Hartsfield,” by Harold Martin; past articles from The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution.