Water crisis demands curbs to uncontrolled growth 

When it comes to water, metro Atlanta has already seceded from the rest of Georgia -- and state leaders have facilitated that artificial separation to the detriment of everyone downstream.

Six years ago, the state Legislature created the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, a mouthful of a name for 16 counties located across the headwaters of five major river basins that flow from North Georgia to the sea. The Chattahoochee, the smallest river serving such a large population in the country, pierces the heart of this district.

Two years later, the district completed plans for water supply, wastewater and watershed protection that accommodate a doubling in metro Atlanta's population by 2030 – from 4 million to 8 million people. The water and sewer infrastructure for this massive increase is projected to cost $66 billion. The metro growth industry will have enough water for more of their cut and run development – but will there be enough clean water leaving the district in 2030 for Rome, LaGrange, Columbus, Macon, Milledgeville and Dublin?

No state law or policy or standard is in place to make sure that the district doesn't suck all the water out, leaving the "other Georgia" high and dry. In fact, it's just the opposite. The current law ensures that the metro district can have all it needs to double its population, but no one else is assured of anything wet that doesn't rain on them.

And what about those of us who live in metro Atlanta? Who among us wants the rivers, lakes and streams that run through our neighborhoods to be depleted and polluted just so developers can build more subdivisions and roads? The district water plans also allow local governments in the metro region to move water from the Etowah to the Chattahoochee, from the Chattahoochee to the Ocmulgee, from the Oconee to the Flint, with no restrictions.

There are better ways to handle our water, actions the metro area can take. Here's three:

• Every day, 18 percent of our water – 168 million gallons per day – is wasted, lost in leakage. The national standard is no more than 10 percent. We could save more than 70 million gallons each day just by setting mandates to repair our system, and requiring deadlines for compliance.

• More than 1 million homes use water-wasting, pre-1995 plumbing. The real estate lobby fights any attempt to mandate plumbing upgrades. But we must insist that those upgrades are made. One good way would be to require a plumbing upgrade when a home is sold – the $300-$600 cost would be recouped by the buyer in a few years by savings on water bills.

• It's time to have mandatory, permanent restrictions on outdoor watering, which now accounts for at least 20 percent of our water usage. Austin, Texas, bans all watering from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. That's a policy we should emulate. Why water during a period of the day when so much of the water quickly evaporates?

The Georgia General Assembly will consider a proposal for a statewide water plan in January. This blueprint for a comprehensive statewide water plan is important and long overdue, but it needs money and lots of it to make it happen, and its provisions need to have real "teeth." Most importantly, it needs to clearly include metro Atlanta in its water management strategies and mandates. Right now, it doesn't.

The Atlanta secession over water will continue unless we all say NO to more unbridled growth. The metro region needs to live within its means, use the water it has efficiently, and leave enough in our rivers to sustain the people and wildlife downstream for generations to come.

Sally Bethea is executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

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