Water Management: We can’t wash our hands of this

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's View: State’s future depends on a treaty with Florida, Alabama over sharing Lake Lanier, and on better policies overall.

— From the Georgia Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan

Visualize Atlanta without growth. Worse yet, picture our region even shrinking as taxpaying residents depart for good, headed for cities that have abundant water available, and maybe even at a cheaper price.

Next, do a mental search-and-replace on the previous paragraph, trading “Georgia” for the local references. That’s the prospect our metro area and state could well face three years from now if, in a worst-case scenario, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ratchets down the water supply from Lake Lanier.

That specter is no doubt driving the current rush toward possible solutions for the decades-old problem.

On Monday, Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Water Contingency Planning Task Force will meet to review possible options for helping resolve Georgia’s water crisis. The group is slated to make recommendations to the governor in December.

Another blade of what Perdue calls a “multi-pronged” water approach is the continuing effort to put him in the same room with the governors of Florida and Alabama. A sizable part of the Southeast’s future economic prosperity and viability is riding on a successful resolution of this issue, so we’d urge the three governors to make haste in meeting. Sincere negotiations should ideally produce an agreement long before a federal judge’s 2012 deadline. Otherwise, we all stand to lose.

Even members of Congress from the water triumvirate states have put aside the axiom that “all politics is local” and joined minds to urge the governors to negotiate a solution. These lawmakers understand the old concept that there are no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests. And no interest is more permanent than the water we all need to live and prosper.

That’s not to absolve the three states’ Washington delegations from doing their own part to help craft a workable, livable water policy for our future.

Only Congress can approve rewriting the Lake Lanier playbook to legitimize once and for all the water withdrawals that keep much of the Atlanta region hydrated and in business.

Congress should do just that in time, although it’s prudent to nudge the governors for awhile yet toward the important first step of reaching a water agreement.

The water task force, being heavily populated by business types, has understandably and shrewdly looked at water using a supply and demand framework.

Georgia faces rising demand balanced against a water supply that was skimpy to start with. By 2012, the Atlanta region could end up 34 percent shy of meeting water needs if U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson follows through on his doomsday threat to throttle back the flow from Lake Lanier’s taps. That amounts to an average shortfall of 250 million gallons a day, or enough to fill roughly 4 million bathtubs.

With supply and demand imbalances known to all, the task force is looking at three broad ways to narrow the gap. Call them the three C’s — conservation, capture and control.

The Atlanta area has already made a big head start toward sustained conservation efforts. After being parched by a relentless drought, we’ve learned how to use a lot less water — achieving savings in double-digit percentages. Thankfully, we’re continuing our thrifty ways even as we’ve watched Lake Lanier flow back to full pool. Conservation pricing in many areas that hikes water rates in lockstep with consumption has no doubt helped users embrace shorter showers and browner lawns. We should build on these efforts where it’s fiscally feasible, whether it entails fixing leaks in household plumbing or in subdivision water mains.

Capturing more water works on the supply side of the problem. New reservoirs are expensive and slow in coming, but we should keep looking hard at building them. Georgia should also analyze possible ways to cram more water into existing infrastructure. Each additional drop helps.

The task force is also examining control methods, perhaps more accurately called capacity. That entails finding ways to gain more water from places and sources not subject to litigation.

In addition to a legal fight with other states, Georgia has long wrestled over water within our own borders in the court of public opinion and policy.

In coming months, we must find ways to reach agreements that could result in many Georgians around the state losing a bit of water. That sounds unacceptable until we realize the alternative is worse if our state’s economic gears begin to rust as a result of the continuing feud.

Reaching a real resolution will let us all begin to move forward on firmer ground.

Bert Brantley, spokesman for Gov. Perdue, said last week that the governor “firmly believes there is room to find a middle ground that covers everybody and that includes Alabama and Florida. He does not believe this is a binary, zero-sum game where somebody wins and somebody loses. Intrastate and interstate, he really believes that.”

In hindsight, Georgia should have embraced that view more tightly before a federal judge ruled against us. That said, it remains in the best interests of three states to reach a real peace treaty soon that ends the water wars.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

In coming weeks and months, we will look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers. Look for "Atlanta Forward," which will identify these discussions. Send comments to atlantaforward@ajc.com .

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.