Georgia water crisis is a polarizing issue

It's been a divisive year inside and outside Georgia, with state and federal politicians disagreeing sharply over illegal immigration and children's health insurance, just to name two issues.

But nothing has been more polarizing than the caustic dispute that has broken out during the last few weeks over North Georgia's water crisis.

Gov. Sonny Perdue flat out wouldn't answer a TV reporter who asked during a news conference at West Point Lake whether the current water shortage is the fault of state and metro Atlanta officials failing to respond to unplanned growth with reasonable water conservation measures. When pushed a second time, the governor tersely answered, "No."

Environmental activists dismiss as faulty logic the argument advanced by Perdue and other state and regional leaders that rapid growth has nothing to do with falling lake levels produced by a historic drought and excessive releases of water from Lake Lanier and other federal reservoirs.

The politicians and bureaucrats do have math on their side. Pat Stevens, chief environmental planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission, noted recently that metro Atlanta's water consumption equates to a flow of about 250 cubic feet per second from Buford Dam.

That's only about 5 percent of the 5,000 cfs the corps has been releasing down the Chattahoochee River in large part to protect endangered species of mussels in Florida.

An agreement Perdue and the governors of Alabama and Florida hammered out last week with the help of the Bush administration calls for temporarily curbing the flow to 4,200 cfs, still way more than metro water customers use.

"If all of metro Atlanta went away, they'd still have those flow problems," Stevens said.

Stevens' boss, ARC Executive Director Chick Krautler, put the same argument more bluntly during a speech to the planning agency's board.

"This water shortage is not the result of the growth of metro Atlanta," he said. "It is the result of a climate condition we have no control over."

But those arguments don't make sense to members of the Georgia Water Coalition, a 150-group alliance that has been pushing state and metro officials for years to get more aggressive with water conservation.

"To say population growth and the failure to conserve have no impact on downstream water users is like saying 10 rats in your pantry do the same amount of damage as one rat," said Joe Cook, executive director of the Rome-based Coosa River Basin Initiative.

"Communities downstream are looking upstream for real action ... What they're getting is rhetoric."

Indeed, environmental advocates are getting action from legislative leaders, but it's not the kind they like.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer, announced late last month that they will introduce legislation this winter to help local governments build a network of reservoirs to prevent future droughts from depleting water supplies.

Environmentalists generally oppose reservoirs as a disruption of the natural flows of river systems that impound water upstream, thereby denying an adequate supply to downstream users.

More specifically, members of the water coalition say Richardson, R-Hiram, and Cagle are rushing ahead before they know how much water is in the reservoir system and how much additional capacity will be needed.

That data isn't available yet, but gathering it will make up a large part of the statewide water management plan lawmakers are expected to adopt this winter.

"First, we need to look at existing reservoirs ... before we start planning very expensive projects like (new) reservoirs," said Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

Environmentalists prefer curbing demand for water rather than increasing supplies.

According to the water coalition, the metro area could save nearly 100 million gallons a day simply by requiring older homes to be retrofitted with low-flow plumbing fixtures when sold and by reducing leaks in water lines just to a level that meets the national industry standard.

State and regional water planners agree that conservation is important. As drafted, the state water plan would require municipal and industrial water users to practice conservation in order to receive future water-withdrawal permits.

But they also insist that Georgia won't solve the water shortage or avoid future supply disruptions relying solely on the demand side of the equation.

"We can do more (to conserve). We will do more," Krautler said. "But unfortunately, the situation can't be remedied by personal conservation alone."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@graypub.com.