Originally created 04/08/01

Many hands want to dip from river



The way Ron Vandiver sees it, the clear water flowing through north Georgia's Tugaloo River is a lot like a farmer's cornfield.

"We're going to send all that corn down to other folks," he said. "But we want to pick a few ears for ourselves first."

Mr. Vandiver - the administrator for Habersham County, 120 miles north of Augusta - had thought his community's request for a permit to pump drinking water from the Tugaloo River would gain routine approval.

But it didn't.

In fact, it drew somewhat of an outcry. Just ask Jim Aton, the county's consulting engineer.

"Here's something you can put in the paper," he said. "There's 500 pages of comments we have to respond to."

The comments came from as far away as Atlanta and Augusta - where Mayor Bob Young voiced fears the plan could set a precedent to deprive the city of its most previous resource: the Savannah River's water.

Why such concern from so far away?

The Tugaloo, 12 miles from Mr. Vandiver's office in Clarksville, merges with the Seneca River to form the 310-mile Savannah that flows past Augusta.

Mr. Young asked other local governments to join him in opposing the Habersham County request, which is under review by the Army Corps of Engineers and Georgia's Environmental Protection Division.

The concern lies with the fact that the water Habersham County needs would be consumed by residents in a different river basin - the Chattahoochee - resulting in a net loss to the Savannah.

Critics of interbasin transfers, including House Speaker Pro Tem Jack Connell, D-Augusta, fear that such activities could set precedents leading to future transfers of Savannah River water to metro Atlanta.

State authorities disagree. And they hope this minor skirmish isn't a harbinger of a full-blown war.

David Word, deputy director of the state EPD, said Habersham's request - 12.5 million gallons a day - is barely a drop in the bucket.

"What they are proposing would amount to one-fifth of 1 percent of the Savannah River's flow - and that wouldn't be until the year 2050," he said. Initial use would be 3 million gallons a day.

Nonetheless, the long-distance dispute exemplifies a growing demand for a limited resource regulated by agencies with often-competing priorities.

Georgia, Florida and Alabama have battled in court for years over water rights in the Chattahoochee River Basin. Downstream users say Atlanta, which draws water from the basin, is taking more than its share.

Mr. Word hopes conflicts such as those raging in west Georgia can be avoided along the Savannah River through planning. A new Savannah River Basin Management Plan completed this year outlines those strategies.

"The laws haven't changed, but the stresses on our water resources have increased dramatically, and therefore our role has increased dramatically," Mr. Word said. "With the Savannah, water is a multistate issue because it's a shared border with South Carolina."

Allan Hallum, manager of EPD's Water Protection Branch, said disputes over water in the Savannah River Basin are inevitable, given the broad spectrum of demands placed on the resource.

"What we're trying to put together now is a study: How much water is there and how we're going to use it in the future," he said. "The quantity side is important, but the quality side is, too."

The Savannah includes lakes Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond - 154,000 flooded acres - managed by the Corps for hydropower production.

However, releases into the lower river must be adequate for the city of Augusta, which relies on the river for drinking water and sewage dilution, as do other large communities such as Columbia County and North Augusta.

Countless industries - and employers that include Savannah River Site and Plant Vogtle - also rely on the river's water. Low flows during droughts also can jeopardize the environment because sewage becomes more concentrated.

Environmental issues often conflict with other uses. Dams and reservoirs have all but eliminated shoals and rapids - a richly diverse habitat important for endangered species such as the robust redhorse sucker.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Steve Gilbert and agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have lobbied for years for better access upstream for spawning fish.

Those fish include American shad, which swim upriver from the Atlantic each spring, and striped bass, which have become so scarce that they must be released when caught in the lower Savannah.

"The Savannah is a big river," Mr. Hallum said. "We always assumed there was plenty of water there. We looked at the western states, and we're thankful we aren't like them. But there are areas that are going to have a crunch, and we have to look at the best way to manage the resources for everybody."

In addition to the Savannah River Basin Management Plan, the General Assembly this year created a joint study committee to evaluate Georgia's overall water strategy.

Some of the issues to be explored include interbasin transfers such as the project proposed by Habersham County, minimum stream flow issues, hydropower impoundments and stream diversion.

"Whether we go to Georgia or to South Carolina, we need to make sure we have an equitable arrangement ahead of time and that everybody understands the rules," Mr. Hallum said. "When there's a drought or a crisis, that's not the time to decide what needs to be done."

State authorities predict a 60 percent population growth throughout the Savannah River Basin by 2050, creating a comparable elevation in water demand, according to EPD's basin management plan.

That growth and the spiraling demands on the Savannah River and its water are cause for concern, according to Michael Shaffer, district director for U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood.

More and more issues brought before Mr. Norwood are related to the river. The latest one was New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, a crucial structure that creates a stable pool of water in downtown Augusta.

The Corps proposed dismantling it, but a coalition representing both sides of the river ultimately devised a plan in which North Augusta and Aiken County own the dam and others share maintenance costs.

"When that started, we helped assemble a core nucleus group of stakeholders, who put a plan on the table to solve a problem," Mr. Shaffer said.

Now Mr. Norwood is trying to do the same thing on a larger scale. This summer, efforts will be under way to create a stakeholders group spanning the entire river basin to help solve and prevent water disputes.

"There will be a lot of stakeholders, from the mountains to the sea," Mr. Shaffer said. "Augusta is the perfect place because we're the midpoint."

Basin basics

The Savannah River Basin is more than just the river. It's also part of a unique ecosystem that is the focus of a new Savannah River Basin Management Plan, to be published this summer. Here's a look at the basin by the numbers:

10,577: Square miles drained by the Savannah River Basin

60 percent: Anticipated basin population growth by 2050

466,545: People whose drinking water comes from the river

124: Municipal and industrial sewage outlets to the river

258: Miles of streams for which fish consumption guidelines exist

7,298: Square miles of commercial forest

108: Fish species found in the river and its tributaries

154,185: Combined acreage of lakes Thurmond, Russell and Hartwell

6: Remaining miles of shoal habitat on the Savannah

797,000: Acres of cultivated farmland

50 million: Gallons per day Richmond County takes from the river

134: Public drinking water systems utilizing the basin's water

8,500 million: Average gallons per day flowing down the Savannah

33,781: Acres of irrigated crops in the basin

265 million: Number of chickens raised annually in the basin

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.