New governor will inherit Georgia's water crisis

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Water issues -- including those affecting Augusta -- will become primary drivers in the 14-way race for Georgia's next governor, according to an Athens environmental group.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled last summer that Atlanta's withdrawals from Lake Lanier were illegal because the lake was built for hydropower, not as a source of drinking water.   Associated Press
Associated Press
U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled last summer that Atlanta's withdrawals from Lake Lanier were illegal because the lake was built for hydropower, not as a source of drinking water.

"On the surface, a lot of it seems like an Atlanta problem, but it's not that cut and dry," said April Ingle, the executive director of the Georgia River Network, during an interview with The Augusta Chronicle .

Atlanta's scramble to identify future water options was accelerated last summer, when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson concluded that withdrawals from Lake Lanier were illegal because the lake was built for hydropower, not as a source of drinking water.

"The ruling was that metro Atlanta will no longer have access to Lanier starting in July of 2012," Ingle said. "So almost a year of that three-year deadline is done."

With the clock ticking, a task force assembled by Gov. Sonny Perdue evaluated options that included interbasin transfers, which could move large volumes of water from the Savannah River basin to metro Atlanta.

Such transfers, she said, could affect Augusta and the Savannah River, which will soon be under a new federal order to reduce certain types of pollution from wastewater.

"The amount of water going down the river totally affects how much pollution it can absorb," she said. "So it's an important issue."

Although the option of interbasin transfers from the Savannah River basin was omitted from the committee's final report in December, Ingle believes it could be resurrected by a different administration if water needs become dire enough.

The new governor must also tackle the perennial dispute with Alabama and Florida, which have argued for decades that Georgia is taking more than its share of water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin.

"Another huge factor is that whoever our next governor is will be working with two other brand new governors, because all three states have governors leaving office with new ones coming in."

Some positive steps have been taken this year, such as the Legislature's approval of the Water Stewardship Act, designed to encourage wiser use of existing resources.

"It has a lot of great things, but at the end of the day it's going to equal about 2.1 percent of the projected needs for metro Atlanta for 2035, which is what they've projected out to, so there will need to be a lot more done."

Georgia's ability to share the Savannah River with South Carolina will also bring challenges to the next governor, Ingle predicted.

The river provides drinking water for dozens of communities and provides wastewater disposal for numerous industries, including many clustered in the Augusta area.

By recent estimates, Georgia already uses 95 percent of the river's waste assimilation capacity, leaving just 5 percent for South Carolina.

Officials on both sides of the river say it is likely that South Carolina will want a more equitable share in the future.


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