It’s shower-with-a-friend time

Two water plans plot separate paths for Georgia

When it comes to water,
Georgia planners are standing at the crossroads.
To the right, they face a plan that seeks a quick fix, a grab-it-while-you-can solution so Atlanta can continue with its unrestrained growth. That option is the construction of up to a dozen reservoirs in north Georgia.

To the left, there’s a plan pushing conservation — for the first time in state history — to ensure future water supplies.

A team within the Department of Natural Resources is coming up with the two plans, which represent the farthest poles of the water quantity spectrum.

It was the Natural Resources board that requested the two studies, and will ultimately decide to either dam and store water, reduce water use, or devise some combination of both.

Both plans were received harshly — the reservoir plan for threatening the environment, the other because it’s too vague — when they were discussed in public for the first time last Wednesday.

Environmentalists hoped the conservation plan would show the Board of the Natural Resources that the state may not need as many reservoirs as it might think.

Environmentalists are against reservoirs because of the damage they cause to wildlife downstream of the dam.

“We were really looking forward to these [plans] moving forward simultaneously, but the water conservation plan has only been approached as a hoop to jump through to get regional reservoirs,” says Alice Miller Keyes, a water specialist with the Georgia Conservancy.

Building reservoirs would ensure that north Georgia had a consistent water supply, even during a drought. But reservoirs, without conservation measures, would mean that most people could continue consuming water without giving it a second thought. The average Georgian uses close to 150 gallons of water per day — that’s 10 percent higher than the national average.

Constructing reservoirs would also mean that developers could keep building as many homes as they want, without building them to be more water efficient.

But reservoirs aren’t cheap, costing close to $50 million each. That cost isn’t usually passed on to water customers — but is absorbed by the state, in effect providing a public subsidy to developers.

More importantly, according to a recent University of Georgia study, reservoirs flood fragile wetlands as dammed rivers overflow to become lakes. Dams also disrupt natural cycles that sustain wildlife and keep pollution in rivers to a minimum, the study says.

The other option — putting a conservation plan in place — isn’t cost-free either. A conservation plan could require homes to be retrofitted with low-flush toilets, and appliances that use less water. New homes could be required to be built with the same.

To encourage conservation, municipalities would raise the price of water to deter wasteful habits.

Such measures have worked in other water-strapped cities. Los Angeles, for example, reduced water consumption by more than 30 percent, even while the population grew.

The state Natural Resources team coming up with the two plans really got environmentalists buzzing by saying that reservoirs are a part of conservation.

“This flies in the face of true, comprehensive water supply planning that identifies conservation as any beneficial reduction in water losses, waste or use,” says the Georgia Conservancy’s Miller Keyes. “The end result of water conservation is not to hold supplies for future use. It is to provide long-term protection of our quality of life, the economy and the environment by reducing long-term demand. It should be considered on equal basis with other water management options.”

Natural Resources board members were first presented with the reservoir plan on the same day as the public meeting, and their initial reaction suggests that reservoirs will indeed be part of north Georgia’s future water plans.

Some of the board’s greenest members are willing to accept reservoirs. “I don’t think it is going to be anything we can stop,” says Natural Resources board member and former Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard. “Then, if a reservoir is going to be built, it should be built on the [river] tributary that is the least ecologically important.”