On July 17, 2009, Federal Judge Paul Magnuson answered a key question that has dominated this 20-year water conflict: How much of the water in Lake Lanier can be legally used for metro Atlanta's water supply? His answer was stunning: none.
Lake Lanier lies in the Chattahoochee River's headwaters just north of Atlanta, and over time it has become the main water source for metro Atlanta, sustaining 3.5 million people, half of whom have moved to the area in the last decades. While the reservoir, built by the Corps of Engineers in the 1950s, was authorized by Congress for flood control, navigation and hydropower, Georgia argues that water supply was also an intent of the federal project. Alabama and Florida argue the opposite, claiming the Corps is holding back too much water in Lanier for unauthorized water supply.
Magnuson agreed with Alabama and Florida and gave all three states three years to come up with a water sharing plan before metro Atlanta's ability to rely on Lanier would be reduced significantly.
With two years left before the judge's ruling takes effect, Georgia faces a water crisis of immense proportions. But Georgia's leaders have yet to fully embrace the dramatic change of course the judge's ruling should have ignited. Instead, they have focused largely on costly and/or politically infeasible options, including transfers of water from other river basins into metro Atlanta and expensive new reservoirs. Georgia also stubbornly refuses to deviate from a proven failed strategy of prolonged litigation.
It makes sense to allow metro Atlanta's citizens and businesses to use some of the water in Lanier for water supply; it is the most environmentally and economically sound solution. However, successful negotiations - and possible re-authorization of Lanier to provide for some of metro Atlanta's water supply - ultimately hinge on metro Atlanta's willingness to reach equitable agreements with downstream communities in all three states while providing adequate safeguards for healthy river ecosystems.
Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper believes the states must move to end the legal appeals and negotiate openly and honestly. Only then will we be able to reach an agreement that fairly shares the limited waters in the ACF and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa Basins.
People and businesses in all three states depend on these river basins. State leaders must demonstrate respect for the rights of all communities to an equitable amount of clean water, a sustainable environment, and future prosperity through more protective regulations.
We need to move beyond the distrust by ensuring negotiations are transparent and decision-making is open to public scrutiny. Our leaders must bring to the table all stakeholders whose expertise can aid in resolving the conflict. Efforts to resolve the dispute behind closed doors have not worked and cannot ensure a fair outcome for all.
And aggressive water and energy conservation and efficiency measures must be implemented across all three states, especially metro Atlanta.
In addition to metro Atlanta's small watershed, growing population and sprawling development, this region has a higher-than-average use of water and energy. The 2010 Georgia Water Stewardship Act is a good start in reducing water consumption, but Georgia needs to take far more dramatic steps to reduce our water demand by the 2012 deadline. This means reducing water loss through leaks, updating old homes with efficient plumbing fixtures, and pricing water to encourage more efficient use.
Finally, all three states must agree on a uniform, basin-wide approach to collecting hydrological and ecological data, measuring water withdrawals and river flows and monitoring the health of our ecosystem in response to human alteration.
The Magnuson rulings have provided an unprecedented opportunity to advance sustainable water management throughout the ACF and ACT Basins.
To accomplish this goal, the states must be willing to de-emphasize litigation and, instead, emphasize smart, cost-effective water supply solutions, over ones that are expensive and risky.
Sally Bethea is the founding director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a 4,800-member environmental advocacy organization established in 1994 and based in Atlanta.