Coinciding with population growth and several years of drought in the southeastern United States, the states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been litigating their respective rights in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in U.S. District Court in the case of In re Tri-State Water Rights Litigation. On 17 July 2009, Judge Magnuson issued a Memorandum and Order ruling that water supply is not an authorized purpose for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operation of Lake Lanier in northeastern Georgia, despite the fact that the reservoir is the largest source of water for metro Atlanta. The ruling has created significant uncertainty for the future of Atlanta regional water supplies and resulted in a rush of manpower (if not any water yet) to put out the ensuing legal and political fire.

Following the court ruling, Georgia has pursued a four-pronged strategy: (1) appeal the ruling; (2) negotiate a solution with Alabama and Florida; (3) pursue Congressional reauthorization of Lake Lanier for water supply purposes; and (4) develop a water contingency plan. On 21 December 2009, the Governor’s Water Contingency Planning Task Force, which consists of 88 members from government, business and environmental organizations, released its final Findings and Recommendations under the fourth prong. The contingency plan makes clear that Georgia believes its best strategy is to prevail in an appeal of the court ruling or otherwise gain authorization to use Lake Lanier for water supply purposes, but the plan also analyzes water conservation and supply options.

The magnitude of the metro Atlanta water gap without Lake Lanier is staggering, with the gap in 2012 expected to be 280 MGD (or 313,000 AFY or 386 million m3/yr), and to grow by 2020 to 350 MGD (or 392,000 AFY or 484 million m3/yr). Regardless of whether Georgia wins its appeal regarding Lake Lanier operations, the plan recommends incentive-based water conservation measures, including increased metering, rebate and tax credits for efficiency improvements and conservation pricing. (Unfortunately, the plan also recommends numerous state subsidies for conservation instead of allowing water rates to rise at levels that will reflect the full cost of water and truly incentivize efficient use.) All told, water conservation is expected to result in only 80 MGD of water savings, far less than the gap, thus necessitating development of new supplies.

Water supply options analyzed by the task force include:

  • An indirect potable reuse project by which treated wastewater would be discharged to the Chattahoochee River and then recaptured downstream;
  • Development of one new and expansion of four existing reservoirs;
  • Development of groundwater in five isolated locations;
  • Temporary and long-term interbasin transfers;
  • Rainwater harvesting; and
  • Desalination.

The task force found that, due to the timing of project implementation, metro Atlanta cannot meet the July 2012 deadline set by Judge Magnuson for reoperation of Lake Lanier. By 2015, there is a potential solution consisting of indirect potable reuse and groundwater development, although the cost was found to be excessive because it required an approximately 55% retail water rate increase. The task force recommended that metro Atlanta undertake water supply projects that would cost-effectively replace Lake Lanier supplies by 2020, including groundwater development and surface reservoirs expansion and development. The recommended plan would require only an approximately 32% increase in retail water rates.

Through the task force report, Georgia appears to be setting up an argument to the court that compliance with the July 2012 deadline for Lake Lanier reoperation is impracticable, and the order should be modified to allow metro Atlanta to implement projects for compliance in 2020, or at the earliest 2015. The report undoubtedly includes a political message as well, since the three states are currently in discussions about possible settlement of the issues out of court. Whether either of those strategies is successful in delaying or avoiding compliance with the court order, or whether Georgia stakeholders can actually accomplish any of the water supply options described in the task force recommendations, remains to be seen.

I, for one, am skeptical that the findings and recommendations will bring much water to put out the fire. While the focus on conservation and efficient use is admirable, the recommendations exclude certain conservation actions that are considered too expensive. Likewise, the task force does not recommend the indirect potable reuse project based on cost and potential customer concerns, which are unlikely to be weighted as heavily by the court and the other states. Georgia and metro Atlanta should continue to work toward implementing all options, since the permitting and other barriers for each alternative project will be significant. As they are hopefully learning, the negative consequences of not securing legally, economically and environmentally sustainable water supplies will far exceed the costs of almost all water conservation and supply projects. Dehydration is a painful death.

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