Recently, a federal judge ruled that metro Atlanta residents have no right to tap Lake Lanier for their drinking water. Because that function was not originally authorized when the lake was built 50 years ago, 3 million people could be without a single source of water, if a compromise with Florida and Alabama is not reached within three years.
While I understand the need to follow the letter of the law, we must also consider what's practical. We cannot leave 3 million citizens without drinking water. We need a MacArthur-type plan for Georgia's water future. Out of the three states embroiled in this issue, ours has the most to lose. The time for action is now.
The Governor should issue an executive order setting forth clear objectives to ensure sustainable water resources for every Georgian today and in the future. This should begin immediately and include a 3-year water plan that puts us in a position of meeting our current and future water needs, regardless of the ruling's ultimate outcome. Increase water storage capacity. The simple fact is that Georgia has plenty of water, mainly from precipitation, however, we obviously lack adequate water storage for current and future needs. By implementing the provisions of the Water Conservation and Drought Relief Act (SB 342), communities can apply for state funding to enlarge existing reservoirs and obtain permits to construct new ones.
Then, under the current Statewide Water Plan, require all affected counties and municipalities to immediately identify their water needs and determine the best sites for new reservoirs as well as increasing freeboards and existing reservoirs. Every corner of the state is a potential place for water storage. To the north, a reservoir on public and private property, as well as Chattahoochee National Forest land, could supplement water inflow to Lanier, maintain adequate water levels and provide direct access to drinking water (as described in SR 107). There are also many appropriate sites in North Georgia that could afford large regional reservoirs.
We can tap into the aquifers throughout South Georgia and use the Oconee National Forest for more storage. Finally, let's not overlook the Georgia coast and opportunities to build desalination plants potentially co-located with power generation, as it has been successfully done in other states.
Permit new reservoirs immediately. The Drought Relief Act provides a streamlined permitting process for new reservoirs. As counties identify new and existing reservoir sites, the Environmental Protection Division should be permitting in 90 days or less. Certainly the Corps of Engineers will require a federal 404 permit and a state-issued 401 permit. We can start the 404 permitting process right away, but shouldn't wait to begin construction. If Congress can do one thing of vital importance for us, they can simply waive the 404 permitting requirement prior to construction for reservoirs where we are simply raising the dam and increasing the freeboard.
There are hundreds of soil conservation reservoirs in North Georgia, whose dams can be easily raised. The implementation of these reservoirs is crucial to ensure Georgians have enough drinking water. Provide funding to increase water storage. The state should immediately move toward funding reservoir development. Starting with next year's budget, the state should dedicate a huge portion, maybe even a majority, of the bond package for the next three years to fund reservoir construction and water distribution projects. We must get design, permitting and construction underway immediately.
With the number of unemployed civil engineers, planners, and construction workers, we can work around the clock to see this effort through and ultimately secure their economic future and that of the state.
Raise the lake level. We must also remember that while it is a strained resource, Lake Lanier is not entirely tapped out. While petitioning Congress for access to our only existing water source, we should also petition to raise the lake level two feet and claim that water as Georgia's. This would be an additional 85,000 acre feet of water storage solely for our state's consumption.
Georgia has few alternatives over the next three years. The Governor and his team, headed by Mike Garrett, will pursue all options; including negotiating with our neighbors, potentially appealing the judge's decision and looking for new water sources. The fact remains that the water in the Chattahoochee River and basin falls on Georgia land, and by definition, that water is ours. We should store the necessary amounts of that water for the livelihood and prosperity of our state and its citizens. The time for talk and study is over. The time for action is now. The question is, do we have the resolve?
State Sen. Chip Pearson represents the 51st Senate District, which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Pickens, and Union counties and portions of Forsyth and White counties. He may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.