The state banks on new reservoirs

Critics decry the lack of conservation measures in Georgia's fight against the drought

Let's dig us some holes!

Such was the battle cry coming out of the state Capitol last month when Gov. Sonny Perdue asked the Legislature to fund $70 million in low-interest loans for cities and counties to build new reservoirs and expand existing ones.

The good news: Some of that money will help local governments dig up the bottoms of existing lakes or modify old dams to increase water capacity. The bad news: Compared with the cost of new reservoirs, the governor's promising pennies. The recently completed Hickory Log Creek Reservoir in Canton, for example, initially had a $20 to $25 million price tag. The cost of that project, as of press time, was more than $100 million. Which means $70 million isn't going to go very far.

The reservoir craze comes at a critical juncture. Despite forecasts that the drought will likely last through the summer, many large water users failed to meet the governor's 10 percent reduction mandate, and the Legislature is prepared to effectively strip the state Environmental Protection Division's director of her power to regulate outdoor watering so it can lift some of the restrictions.

The state also has offered little guidance on what will happen between now and when any new reservoirs go online in 10 to 20 years. And absolutely no one in government has suggested the region try to slow its growth to protect its dwindling water supply.

"The fact is that some local governments are taking steps in the right direction in regards to water efficiency," says Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. "But the state just says that it'll produce a water conservation plan. OK, they make another plan. And in the meantime, 100,000 more people move into metro Atlanta every year. And I think it's the mind-set of business and political leaders to maintain the status quo. It's a lot easier than changing."

The idea of building reservoirs isn't new. The late and legendary state House Speaker Tom Murphy famously wanted to plunk one down near his hometown of Bremen. Former Gov. Roy Barnes planned to build several to ensure metro Atlanta had enough water for the future prior to his eviction via election in 2002. Gov. Perdue flushed the idea when he took office.

It took a historic drought to get Perdue and such General Assembly heavies as state House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to talk up the idea again. The state Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee unanimously passed a bill last week that would speed up the permitting process for new reservoirs. The state also would cover as much as 20 percent of the cost for expanding reservoirs, and as much as 40 percent of the cost for new projects.

But new reservoirs aren't the cure-all, and they come with their own built-in issues. For one, there will likely be battles with property owners whose land will go underwater. For another, environmentalists have opposed new reservoirs – both because the reservoirs promote growth and because of their impact on fragile ecosystems that are either displaced or altered.

To construct a reservoir, a wetland must essentially be destroyed. As part of the permitting process, a new wetlands area must be created and protected elsewhere in its place. However, a study by the River Basin Center at the University of Georgia said that process is often inadequately enforced and has a low success rate on a national scale.

The answer, say Bethea and other environmentalists, is to focus on conservation. According to the Metropolitan North Georgia Water District, 35 million gallons of water could be conserved every day if homes with antiquated and thirsty plumbing were retrofitted with low-flow fixtures. That's a little more than 5 percent of the total daily consumption.

It's cheaper, too. The state EPD estimates that if the region employed more stringent conservation measures – such as escalating fee plans that make large users pay more, retrofitting old plumbing, repairing leaky faucets – it would cost roughly 50 cents to $150 to produce each 1,000 gallons rather than the $4,000 it would cost for the same amount of water from a new reservoir.

"Years ago, water-district officials went through more than 100 measures outlining what would be the most effective ways to conserve water and picked 10 they thought were best," Bethea says. "But there was no political will to follow through to make the local governments in metro Atlanta do what they need to do. We know what the most effective measures are. And we need to go do them."

The second alternative – one that is included in Perdue's spending proposal – would be to improve existing dams before local governments permanently change fragile ecosystems.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, 357 watershed structures – many of which were built primarily for flood control in the 1950s and located in North Georgia's areas of rapid population growth – sit ripe for modification. They could be turned into deep reservoirs at a fraction of the cost of starting from scratch. The federal agency is currently helping Dawson County expand Russell Creek Reservoir from 11 acres to 137 acres.

The new statewide water plan that awaits the governor's signature places a priority on such projects. The Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission is currently studying 20 of the sites to see if modifying them would be feasible.

Perdue has said he knows there is no "silver bullet" in regard to solving the drought. Reservoirs will only play a part, he says. But critics worry this supposed "newfound" source of water may just fuel more of the growth that, to many critics, has led the state to this point.

"Will Georgia need new reservoirs?" asks Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, a Rome-based nonprofit environmental group. "Yes. But I don't think constructing a reservoir in every community in North Georgia will make our problems any better."