Atlanta Forward / Another View: Look for solutions beyond Lake Lanier

A federal judge this summer may have done Atlanta a favor, although many who live there and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue don’t see it that way. The judge’s ruling could finally force the state’s leaders to begin to take action to solve their water issues — beyond haggling with Alabama and Florida over water from Lake Lanier.

A water management task force appointed by Perdue has concluded the Atlanta area must soon find some answers, so he will be under increased pressure to work out a deal with the governors of Alabama and Florida.

The dispute among the states has gone on for nearly two decades. Lanier provides drinking water to about 3.5 million people in the Atlanta area. But cities and towns in Florida and Alabama also depend on the Lanier-fed Chattahoochee River.

In July, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson gave Georgia three years to reach an agreement on use of Lanier’s water. If negotiations fail, Atlanta would be limited to the withdrawals it made from the lake in the 1970s.

Perdue plans to challenge the ruling and has asked the state’s congressional delegation to work for continued access to Lake Lanier.

The solutions Perdue’s task force found, including new reservoirs, could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And it would take at least eight years to develop new reservoirs.

But there probably would be complications from any plan that would divert water from Alabama or Florida. Any move to capture water that flows into Alabama or Florida would likely provoke a lawsuit that would take years to settle. That’s time Atlanta doesn’t have if it continues to grow.

Even aggressive water conservation measures would not make up for the nearly 300 million gallons a day Atlanta stands to lose if it is cut off from the lake.

The task force also looked at tapping the Tennessee River. To do that, Georgia would have to challenge the 1818 survey that mistakenly placed the Georgia-Tennessee border about a mile south of the river.

That sort of talk over the last several years has made North Alabama officials apprehensive because the water Atlanta uses would not be returned to the river. Many Alabama cities and towns along the river rely on it for drinking water, which is recycled by wastewater treatment plants. What would the effect be on the water you drink if Atlanta were making massive withdrawals, especially during a lingering drought?

Instead of whining that Alabama and Florida won’t roll over so metro Atlanta can continue to grow, Georgia’s leaders need to take concrete steps to address the city’s need for water. And they shouldn’t forget that Lake Lanier is no panacea: It almost dried up in a drought not too long ago.

Mike Hollis writes editorials for The Huntsville Times.