A year after ruling, our water future is now bright

Just 18 months ago, North Georgia was praying for rain. Lakes were low. Water was rationed. Landscapes and property values were shriveling. An extended drought and lack of proactive planning had brought North Georgia to its knees.

Then, just after the heavens opened last spring, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson delivered another crushing blow to Georgia, ruling in favor of Alabama and Florida in a two-decade old “water war.”

Unless an agreement among the three states is reached and authorized by Congress, Magnuson’s ruling requires Georgia to do two things by mid-2012: 1.) stop all water supply withdrawals from Lake Lanier except for the two, small withdrawals from the river existing before the construction of the lake; and 2.) return to mid-1970s levels of withdrawals from the river downstream of Lake Lanier, unless an agreement between the three states is reached and authorized by Congress. Considering that Lanier and the Chattahoochee River are the primary water sources for North Georgia and west Georgia, a future without an agreement would be devastating.

For Georgia, it was sink or swim. Fortunately, we decided to swim. First, the state filed an appeal on Magnuson’s ruling and began negotiations with Alabama and Florida to attempt to resolve the Lanier issue.

In the wake of last July’s ruling, the Georgia Legislature took a strong interest in the water issue. More recently, with rainfall and challenging budget issues, water hasn’t received as much public attention. Despite this lack of attention, the Legislature remained focused and significant progress was made during this year’s session.

The most important legislation was the Georgia Water Stewardship Act of 2010. The bill includes several policies that will help Georgia become a regional and national leader in water conservation:

● Mandatory statewide outdoor water prohibition between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (when evaporation is greatest).

● Efficient water fixtures will be required in all new residential and commercial construction, and apartments and condominiums will be individually metered beginning in July 2012.

● State agencies will develop incentives to help governments retrofit existing construction, implement water-saving programs and enhance water supply development.

● The Georgia Environmental Protection Division will set standards for water loss and leak detection for all medium and large public water systems, which serve more than 90 percent of Georgia’s water users.

● Voluntary agriculture monitoring will be expanded to include surface water withdrawals. This data will inform water negotiations with Florida and Alabama and be used by Georgia’s Regional Water Councils as they develop their plans.

● New classification of agricultural and groundwater withdrawal permits — active, inactive and unused.

The goal of the bill is to both create a “culture of conservation” and to give Georgia leverage in future negotiations or court battles. Georgia already uses half the water per capita of our neighbors Alabama and Tennessee.

And while the effort to secure water from Lake Lanier for North Georgia has dominated the headlines, work continued on a process outlined by the Georgia Comprehensive State-Wide Water Management Plan (approved by the Legislature in 2008) to plan Georgia’s water future. Ten new Regional Water Councils are working across the state to set priorities for their regions and allocate the state’s water supply for the next 40 years. Georgians outside of Atlanta who are concerned about water use in the future should be paying special attention to their local water councils — their decisions are likely to have a dramatic impact on existing uses and future permit decisions.

When Georgians look back at the early part of the 21st century, they may well see 2008, 2009 and 2010 as the turning point when we quit taking Lanier for granted and began taking water conservation and planning seriously.

Brad Carver is a partner at Hall, Booth, Smith & Slover. Scott Cole is of counsel with the firm.