Rebel alliance forms for water wars

Fighting reservoirs a top priority

Even if the state wasn’t suffering from a severe drought, the Atlanta region faces a thorny water quality problem.
Depending on whom you ask, Atlanta will run out of water either next month or in 2030. At least four metro water systems — Monticello, Griffin, Roswell and Carrollton — are either out of water and are having to pipe it from other systems, or are down to a supply that will last about 30 days.

Solving this problem has been the focus of yet another committee created by Gov. Roy Barnes and the General Assembly.

Unfortunately, the group has decided to focus more on quenching Atlanta’s thirst for development by ensuring that the region has enough water to continue its breakneck growth rate.

The group threw out conservation and environmental sections of a plan that’ll show up as legislation in the 2003 General Assembly.

The top environmental groups in the state have banned together in an effort to help forge a water policy that does more than merely protect Atlanta’s development machine and rural Georgia agricultural interests. The Georgia Conservancy, the Upper Chattahoochee River Keeper, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Georgia Wildlife Federation are coming up with proposals that’ll be sent to the governor before summer’s end.

The stakes in the battle over Georgia’s water wars are higher than ever before. The Environmental Protection Division wants to build a dozen or so reservoirs in the headwaters of Georgia’s major waterways, a plan environmentalists consider an ecological nightmare.

Killing the reservoir plan is one of the coalition’s main priorities.

“The great fear is someone will look at that [reservoir construction] and think it’s the quick-fix solution to the water problem, when in fact it’s not a long-term solution at all,” says Georgia Wildlife Federation President and CEO Jerry McCollum. “Whatever life is in that stream [below a reservoir], you are going to kill it or damage it.”

McCollum and Georgia Conservancy President John Sibley served as advisers to the study committee, and were miffed when environmental protections were axed from the plan that’ll become legislation.

Sibley and McCollum wanted the group to recognize that it’s the state’s job to protect water for the public, and not merely to allow industries to suck it all up so businesses can profit. That philosophy was taken out of the group’s recommendations at the last minute.

Besides reservoirs, the biologists, engineers and activists want cities and counties to fix their leaky water pipes (some cities, they said, leak 25 percent of the water that’s supposed to go to our taps).

They want to change building codes so that the use of gray water — water that’s been cleaned up enough for yards and car washing after it’s passed through the shower, kitchen sink and toilet — would be encouraged, instead of stifled as it is now.

Repeatedly, they stressed the need for the state to perform an inventory of exactly how much water is being withdrawn from rivers by industries and farmers, and how much water those rivers and waterways can afford to lose and still remain healthy — a difficult feat the state is just beginning to wrestle with.

The group has two more meetings to finalize their priorities and write up the recommendations that will be given to Barnes, the man who, if re-elected, will likely forge the legislation that will control the state’s water destiny.

“We’re very hopeful he’ll be receptive,” McCollum says. “He’s always been in the past, so we’ll submit for his consideration our own set of recommendations by the end of the summer.”

The four environmental groups won a $150,000 grant that’ll pay for the costs of developing the recommendations, lobbying during the next legislative session, and a media campaign.

The bad news, though, is that the General Assembly has never been overly kind to state rivers. In 2000, a non-binding resolution that deemed waterways should be managed by the state for the public was shot down in the House of Representatives and in the state Senate.