Savannah River Basin could be option for Atlanta

A federal edict that could end Georgia's perennial water war with Florida and Alabama -- but limit metro Atlanta's access to Lake Lanier -- could spur more statewide interest in the Savannah River Basin's abundant water supply above Augusta.

"There's no question it'll be looked at," predicted environmental lobbyist Neill Herring, who monitors water issues for clients including the Sierra Club. "They've maintained an interest for a long time."

Last week's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson concluded metro Atlanta's withdrawals from Lake Lanier to accommodate almost 4 million residents are illegal because the lake was built for hydropower, not to supply household water.

The ruling was a victory for 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. Georgia was ordered to stop taking Lanier's water within three years unless Congress authorizes continued use.

Such a deal, Mr. Herring said, would be difficult because congressional delegations from Alabama and Florida would be at the table as well, looking out for their respective states.

Georgia officials long have contended there never will be an effort by metro Atlanta to tap the Savannah for drinking water, and on Wednesday, officials reiterated that stance.

"No. Interbasin transfers from the Savannah River into the 16-county metro-Atlanta area are not legal," said Georgia Environmental Protection Division spokesman Kevin Chambers. "We are focused on the reauthorization of Lake Lanier."

Mr. Herring, however, pointed out that all it would take, under state law, is a simple change and a news release announcing the new policy.

Such a transfer is also feasible from an engineering standpoint, he said. A pumping station at Lake Hartwell, for example, could move water to the Chattahoochee River near Clarksville, which flows all the way into Atlanta.

From an environmental perspective, however, moving water from one basin to another -- known as interbasin transfers -- permanently erases part of the supply that otherwise is returned to rivers and streams and is damaging to the environment, said Frank Carl, the executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper.

"If they did try it, they would probably try to tap from the upper reservoirs, which are not Corps of Engineers reservoirs," Dr. Carl said, adding that Georgia officials might have better luck with Congress.

"In some ways, it will be much easier for them to work out a deal with Congress, which has to create new uses for Lake Lanier," Dr. Carl said. "All it would take is a congressional mandate."

In terms of water quantity, the Savannah River basin is abundant. Lake Lanier, the catalyst for the decades-long water war, is barely 40,000 acres. The Savannah's lakes -- Thurmond, Russell and Hartwell -- encompass 154,000 acres.

Tapping the Savannah River was one long-range option studied for metro Atlanta in 2000, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on a comprehensive study of the region's water supplies. The idea later was deemed unlikely because a statewide water planning strategy indicated the Atlanta area would have adequate supplies through at least 2030. That long-range plan, however, included Lake Lanier.

Based on Friday's court ruling, restrictions on Lake Lanier could make the Savannah a much more attractive option, which could set a disturbing precedent that could affect Augusta and other users of the river, said Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver.

"My primary concern is that, although interbasin transfers from the Savannah Basin to support growth in Atlanta are not currently part of the conversation with regards to the water planning process, this could quickly change in the future," he said.

One factor that could influence the issue is the 2012 redistricting process that will put more political representation in metro Atlanta because of population growth, Mr. Copenhaver said.

"When this occurs, the precious water resources of our region, along with others throughout the state, could very well be at risk to the detriment of economic growth for years to come."

Reach Rob Pavey at (707) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

A look at the Savannah River Basin:

8.5 BILLION: Average gallons per day flowing down the Savannah

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

60 MILLION: Peak gallons used by Augustans on a hot summer day

Source: Savannah Basin Comprehensive Study