Multi-State Water Dispute Discussed at Metro Chamber Forum

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(APN) ATLANTA — The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce (MACOC) hosted business leaders and State lawmakers at a forum Thursday, January 14, 2010, to discuss the region’s water woes and recent recommendations made by a State task force.

Georgia has been engaged in a two-decades long struggle with Florida and Alabama over water rights. A court ruling last year put in jeopardy Metro Atlanta’s ability to use Lake Lanier as its primary source of drinking water.

If the region loses that primary source of water, it could result in billions of dollars in lost revenue.

“This issue is one of the greatest challenges our region and state has ever faced,” Sam Williams, MACOC President, said Thursday.

US District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled July 17, 2009, that the US Army Corps of Engineers has allowed Metro Atlanta communities to use water from the Lake Lanier reservoir for decades, even though US Congress never authorized the lake’s construction for that purpose.

Judge Magnuson delayed enforcement of the ruling to give US Congress time to authorize water supply as a purpose for Lake Lanier. If there is no authorization by July 17, 2012, the ruling takes effect and water usage will revert to 1975 levels.

“It is clear we would have to go back to a level far, far less than we need in [2012],” Nels Peterson, Executive Counsel to Gov. Sonny Perdue, said. “The City of Atlanta cannot go without a water supply and we’re going to do everything we can to get the reauthorization.”

Soon after the ruling, the governor came up with a four-pronged approach: appeal the decision, enter into negotiations with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, work with the states’ Congressional delegations to obtain authorization, and develop contingency plans should the ruling take effect.

Georgia hired Washington, DC-based firm WilmerHale, led by former US Solicitor General Seth Waxman, to work on the appeal. The Eleventh Circuit Court has stayed the appeal while judges decide how to address jurisdictional issues raised by Alabama and Florida.

Gov. Perdue met with Crist and Riley on December 15, 2009, in Montgomery, Alabama, to discuss a water-sharing agreement. The meeting was held in private and confidentiality orders prohibit the parties from releasing too many details.

Peterson said it was “a fantastic meeting” that led the governors to agree to charge their negotiating teams to reach a deal in time to pass all three State legislatures this year.

Peterson said that it is “absolutely realistic” the Georgia General Assembly can pass appropriate legislation this year.

“If it doesn’t happen by the end of this legislative Session, the Governor said he would be willing to call a Special Session,” he said.

State Sen. Ross Tolleson (R-Perry), Chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, said he would consult with the Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Speaker David Ralston, and Gov. Perdue on any potential legislation.

“We’re going to be very methodical about letting legislation pass this Committee onto the floor that would in any way hamper the negotiations,” he said. “You never know what’s going to set off your opponent.”

Meanwhile, State officials briefed the Obama Administration and have been meeting with Georgia’s Congressional delegation.

Top officials also recognize that the ruling could stick and have been working on contingency plans.

Gov. Perdue enlisted the region and state’s top business leaders to serve on a Water Contingency Task Force and charged the panel with crafting practical contingencies by the end of 2009.

The 80-member task force recommended on December 21, 2009, the state continue fighting for the right to Lake Lanier while instituting aggressive conservation measures.

“There is no question Lanier is the most efficient, economic, and environmentally-friendly way to provide for Georgia’s water needs,” Peterson said.

The Task Force also considered desalination, inter basin water transfers, reservoir expansion, and reservoir construction but concluded those options would cost billions of dollars and take too much time to complete.

Boston Consulting Group Principal Mac Hodell said, “Only conservation will provide any significant yield.”

The panel’s conservation recommendations include fixing leaks, watering restrictions, enhanced incentives for retrofits on bathroom fixtures, rebate programs for commercial spray-rinse valves and cooling towers, and rebate programs for residential Water Sense appliances.

Joe Tanner, President and CEO of Joe Tanner & Associates, said Georgia should continue aggressive conservation even if all issues are favorably settled.

“It’s also important to remember for the future of this State to continue to conserve, capture, and control,” he said.

While speakers said Magnuson’s ruling has caused many problems for the region, they also acknowledged the judge’s hard deadline provides plenty of incentive to act quickly.

“The judge drew a line in the sand and that’s a bad thing,” Tolleson said. “But the judge drew a line and that’s a good thing.”

“This is what I would call a pivotal time in our region and in our State,” Williams said. “If we fail to deal with this problem, the consequences are unbelievably dire.”

(END/2010)

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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