COMMERCE, Ga. --- North Georgia holds a little-known secret that could come in handy during the state's historic drought: A band of aging, government-built lakes that are brimming with water.
The federal government built 357 dams starting in the 1950s to protect agricultural lands from floods and create jobs for mostly rural communities. Since many of the areas were sparsely populated, only 19 of the dams were equipped to provide drinking water.
But some Georgia lawmakers are rethinking the dams in the midst of a severe drought that has forced state officials to impose sweeping water restrictions.
Now there's a Senate proposal to allow state dollars to be used to renovate and deepen these lakes so they can be tapped for drinking water.
It's rushing through the Capitol like a swift mountain stream, just as state budget writers are considering doling out $70 million on a splurge to build new reservoirs.
"This is the low hanging fruit," said state Sen. Chip Pearson, the proposal's sponsor. "The dams are already there. And they're ready to be expanded."
The Republican's plan would allow the state to pay as much as 20 percent of the cost of expanding the lakes, using some of the $70 million Gov. Sonny Perdue proposes using for reservoirs. It would also allow the state to pay for up to 40 percent of new reservoirs.
The existing, untapped reservoirs started popping up after a 1954 federal law allowed the state Natural Resources Conservation Service to build them.
Most were constructed in the northern part of the state. Each was designed to prevent the flooding of agricultural land.
Few were built to provide drinking water because local communities had to pick up half the tab, plus the cost of building treatment centers and water supply systems.
But as north Georgia's population booms, thirsty towns and counties are looking to the dams as a new source of water.
The state NRCS is so far helping two communities convert their lakes for drinking water supply, and more requests will likely be on the way, said Jimmy Bramblett, an assistant state conservationist.
State lawmakers allocated $600,000 in the last budget for a study due in March that analyzed more than 160 other dams for possible water supply.
Updating the lakes won't come cheap. The planning process takes years, and Mr. Bramblett pegs the average cost at around $100 million.
"Once communities see how much money it's going to cost, there's a bit of a sticker shock," he said. "But it could be an answer for a few communities."