Water: We must row hard to fix this problem

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's Opinion: We have no real choice other than to act proactively in multiple ways to increase our supply.

"People expect us to get things done. They don’t expect us to sit around and argue all day long. They expect us to accomplish something, to work together for the common good and for the greater good.”

-- Florida Gov. Charlie Crist

Last week, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue got the group hug he’d jokingly suggested was a first step toward resolving the long-flowing water dispute with Florida and Alabama.

Embracing his fellow Southern governors can’t hurt, but we hope a more-useful milestone from last week’s meeting was the three governors’ common assertion that they will work hard toward a joint agreement that could be signed off on in 2010, hopefully even early in the new year.

Even if Christmas is half a year past by then, arriving at a real peace treaty in the water wars would be the best holiday present possible for Georgia’s capital, the rest of the state and for the Southeastern U.S.

Getting the governors on board with a deal has been urged as the best possible solution by everyone from the U.S. Interior Secretary to congressional members from the three states.

So, let’s get on with reaching a pact, even if it means a bit less water for all of us, which it probably will. The predictability of a water agreement will allow all three states to get on with the business of weathering this nasty recession and planning for a future recovery and growth.

A few days before Perdue, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley met in Montgomery, Ala., a task force of Georgians presented its draft report to Perdue.

Given that the water crisis has bubbled here for two decades, there were few surprises in the report. The task force, to its credit, presented a business-like analysis of the problem and outlined options to solve it, assigning ballpark pricetags in the process.

The group’s document stated the most-important point in bold on page one: “All analysis of alternatives re-affirms that Lake Lanier is the best water source for Metro ATL.” True that. It’s imperative for Georgia to reach an accommodation that will allow our region to continue tapping Lanier’s waters.

That last week’s meeting of the governors finally happened gives us some hope that a deal is possible, even in light of U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson’s decisive ruling against Georgia in this matter.

Negotiations, though, won’t turn the tide alone. With the task force set to hand off its final report this week, it’s up to Gov. Perdue, the Georgia General Assembly and other elected officials around the state to get quickly behind turning plans into reality.

Achieving this new reality will be expensive. Doing little or nothing will cost even more. The task force’s consultants put the annual price of inaction at $26 billion for the Atlanta region. That’s a crippling tax this region and state cannot afford. By comparison, the projected $2.6 billion cost over 50 years of the task force’s “cost optimal” solution package looks a lot more attractive.

Solutions will take time, so we must get moving toward them now. Water treatment plants cost a lot of money to build. New, or expanded, reservoirs to capture water for Atlanta’s needs aren’t cheap either. Both are less expensive, though, than last-resort “unfavorable” tactics such as removing salt from Atlantic Ocean waters and pumping the refined product uphill to the Atlanta region.

The “3C’s” strategy laid out by the water task force points us down a sound path toward resolving our water problem.

The first C, conservation, should gain Georgia points politically, in addition to saving precious water at its source. Reducing consumption makes sense in this water-short region. As the task force presented its work recently, Gov. Perdue, to his credit, remarked that conservation “shouldn’t be seen as a word of sacrifice; it should be a word of honor.”

Cutting back will increase water available for downstream users, which should help Georgia in negotiations both with our neighbors and maybe even Judge Magnuson if he sees hard evidence that we’re serious about being good stewards of Lake Lanier’s output. It’s up to our elected leaders now to decide the appropriate mix of carrot-and-stick incentives needed to further reduce usage.

None of us want to pay more for water. Realistically, though, we have no real choice other than to act proactively in multiple ways to increase our supply of the life-sustaining liquid, even if Lake Lanier gets reauthorized for our use. Georgia’s future prosperity and growth demands no less.

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 the designation "Atlanta Forward," which will identify these discussions.