Tri-state water wars: Don’t end up high and dry

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's Opinion: Georgia’s water-saving strategies are good, but not enough. We must reach deals with Alabama and Florida. We can’t count on the courts to save us.

In less than 13 months, as it stands now, the water source for much of metro Atlanta will be wrenched back to a trickle when a federal judge’s order takes effect.

That approaching deadline should get, and keep, the attention of all of us. There are many who don’t believe that the courts, Congress or even President Barack Obama would allow the use of water from Lake Lanier to be yanked back to 1970s levels. They should get over that Pollyannaish notion — fast. We must act as though the doomsday scenario is a reality, which it is, barring action by the courts or an unexpected tri-state settlement.

In fairness, that’s not to say Georgia has sat back passively and watched prospects for fixing the water issue float by.

A task force empaneled by Gov. Nathan Deal began work on a state water supply plan this spring. A draft report’s expected in August and could provide a valuable manual for addressing differing water needs across the state.

And Georgia, particularly the northern part of the state that includes metro Atlanta, has made significant progress toward water conservation. We’ve done a lot, but we can do even more as we seek to use every scarce droplet as efficiently as practicable.

Water-saving measures should prove we’re serious about self-help. That may aid Georgia’s cause in the courtroom. Conservation moves should also benefit us in negotiating rooms where teams from Georgia, Florida and Alabama are reportedly still seeking an agreement.

Given the unfortunate secrecy surrounding these talks, who knows what, if any, progress is being made. What is evident is that we need results soon.

The July 17 anniversary of U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson’s ruling on use of water from Lake Lanier is one of several noteworthy dates approaching. All warrant our sincere attention, given the press of time.

One wild card at this point is a ruling expected soon on Georgia’s court challenge to Magnuson’s order. It could come any day, or week, now.

It’s somewhat expected that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will unwind at least part of Magnuson’s finding that Lake Lanier is not expressly authorized for use in meeting Atlanta’s water needs.

That belief seems logical, at least from this region’s viewpoint. It’s not something we can bank on, however. Let’s remember that Magnuson’s ruling came as a shock to many and fueled a frantic public-private push for water solutions.

Legal uncertainties mean it’s still important to reach a deal soon with Alabama and, hopefully, Florida.

We also need to agree soon on best-practice options to capture and conserve more of the water that passes through Georgia. One good step would be earmarking for conservation work part of the $300 million budgeted by Deal to jump-start water projects.

These and other efforts must happen quickly to ensure Georgia’s future. We have no other choice.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

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