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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Task Force: Lake Lanier alternatives include conservation, reservoirs, fixing leaky pipes

click to enlarge 'Excuse me, buddy, do you know where I can find a water supply for five million people? No? OK, then!'
  • 'Excuse me, buddy, do you know where I can find a water supply for five million people? No? OK, then!'

Gov. Sonny Perdue said Friday that Lake Lanier remains the most cost efficient and environmentally friendly way to supply water for metro Atlanta — but just in case the sky falls, he's looking at alternatives.

Perdue held his final meeting yesterday with businesspeople, politicians and (a few) environmentalists who make up a task force the governor assembled after a federal judge said metro Atlanta risked losing Lake Lanier as its primary source of drinking water.

The task force's mission: if the massive reservoir is deemed off-limits, craft possible ways the state can ensure it has enough water to meet current needs and future growth.

After the state spent nearly 20 years quibbling with Alabama and Florida over water sharing, a federal judge in July ruled that metro Atlanta's water withdrawals from Lake Lanier were illegal. The judge set a 2012 deadline for the states to find common ground and receive congressional authorization or water withdrawals would return to mid-1970s levels.

Perdue says the state's first plan of attack is to appeal the judge's decision. At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., is plotting another strategy.

But if those gambles fail, Georgia must undertake the difficult — and costly — process of either living on less or finding more water. And if that's the case, Perdue's opting for the latter.

Task force members yesterday at Georgia Tech were presented with a lengthy report of draft recommendations based on the group's support (or lack thereof) for a wide range of water-supply alternatives including retrofitting toilets, fixing leaky pipes, and desalination.

The technical team that worked with the task force says all the proposals are too cumbersome and laden with red tape to make up the 280 million gallons of water per day, or mgpd, that metro Atlanta stands to lose if the state fails to meet the 2012 deadline. Stringent water conservation, which the technical team says is the most cost-efficient and effective weapon in the state's limited arsenal, will only save 65 mgpd.

So they've concocted a back-up plan. The task force has taken up the mantra "conserve, capture, control" — which basically means the state needs to use less water, store more water in expanded or new reservoirs, and use watering restrictions if need be.

Proposals that earned support included incentives-based conservation and fixing leaky pipes. If the state loses Lake Lanier, task force members showed support for expanding or creating new reservoirs and reusing highly treated wastewater. Also on the list was direct potable reuse — thoroughly treating wastewater until it's suitable for consumption.

The highly controversial practice of moving water from one river basin to another, called interbasin transfers, was generally met with opposition. Some task force members think it'd be suitable on a "temporary" basis. But others, particularly those in rural and northeast Georgia, remain staunchly opposed (sub. req'd.). Desalination, thankfully, has been viewed as the pie-in-the-sky proposal it truly is.

If pursued, most of these measures will cost the state — and you — more money. According to one estimate by the technical team, water rates could rise by as much as 54 percent. The more time the state can buy and extend the 2012 deadline, the less water-supply options would cost.

Even if Alabama, Florida and Georgia make amends and the Peach State is allowed to tap Lake Lanier, task force members said some water conservation efforts, such as offering incentives to retrofit water-wasting showerheads and toilets, should be pursued.

Some members, however, think such a dire situation requires mandatory action. Georgia Conservancy President Pierre Howard says the state should look at mandates because data shows it saves the most water and has little to no impact on the environment.

The former lieutenant governor was encouraged by Perdue's statements that interbasin transfers would most likely not be part of the contingency plan — but warned that there's really no such thing as "temporary" interbasin transfers.

"If they ever do it once, they're never going back," Howard told CL. "The Georgia Conservancy believes that if any interbasin transfer is once permitted, it's probably going to be very hard to uproot."

Perdue, who months ago bristled at the very mention of water-saving mandates, now appears to be open to all the options. Continuing to use Lake Lanier is the goal, he said, but the state must be a better steward.

"We're all in this together," Perdue said to reporters after the meeting. "Conservation shouldn't be a word of sacrifice, it really should be a word of honor. These are vital resources for which we are long-term stewards. We're not an arid state, we're typically blessed with a lot of rainfall. How we use, and reuse, and use only what we need is extremely important going forward."

Task force members will now offer input on two alternative plans, each one envisioning  conservation measures. The group will present Perdue later this month with its final recommendations, from which the governor can pluck possible legislation for state lawmakers to consider.

“We firmly believe this crisis can be dealt with, but it will take bold leadership and aggressive action," task force co-chair John Brock, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, said in a statement after the meeting. "We are recommending specific steps to the Governor, but our work is not over. We will continue to work with the Governor as these recommendations are considered by the Georgia General Assembly.”

That the business community — particularly the real estate industry, which for years has stonewalled attempts to retrofit toilets and showerheads with water-saving fixtures — now sees the merits of conservation is a good sign.

But much like nearly every other state grappling with the economic downturn, Georgia's in a financial pinch. When the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 11, state lawmakers will have to trim the budget. They will be hard-pressed to find cash for incentives for new toilets — precisely at the time everyone seems to have the stomach for saving water.

On Tuesday, Perdue, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will sit down in a closed-door meeting in Montgomery, Ala., to discuss the tri-state water dispute. Perdue says he'll bring the data presented yesterday to the pow wow with his counterparts. He's optimistic.

"I hope Gov. Riley and Gov. Crist and I can have a group hug and we can agree on the water allocation between our three states," Perdue said, turning beet red.

Note: We're working on obtaining a copy of the PowerPoint presentation. We'll update and post it here if we get our hands on it.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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