Savannah River Basin could be option for Atlanta

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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

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robaroo
886
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robaroo 07/23/09 - 05:47 am
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Looks like the water war is

Looks like the water war is shifting from the Chattahoochee to the Savannah River. The real issue is how many people you can cram into one area - Atlanta. If you are going to do that, outlaw car washes, golf courses, lawn watering, etc to leave enough water for people to do the necessary things.

southern2
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southern2 07/23/09 - 06:30 am
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I hope Atlanta has a Plan B.

I hope Atlanta has a Plan B. In case they haven't noticed, Clark Hill Lake is over 4 foot low and hasn't seen full pool for almost 2 years.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 07/23/09 - 07:40 am
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We need to get South Carolina

We need to get South Carolina involved. The worry is that Atlanta could tap the Savannah without having to worry about other states downstream, except South Carolina, since it flows into the ocean from our state. Another point was made yesterday. If the project to deepen Savannah harbor moves along, greater releases from Thurmond Dam will be required to maintain the fresh water supply in the coastal region of SC and GA.

Mr. Thackeray
957
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Mr. Thackeray 07/23/09 - 08:17 am
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ATL gets everything it

ATL gets everything it deserves-is it really part of Georgia? Bad planning and no foresight caused their water problems. keep your hands off OUR water!

LEO
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LEO 07/23/09 - 09:21 am
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The growth of Atlanta is not

The growth of Atlanta is not sustainable. If its citizens want water, then let them move to where the water is. Mayor Copenhaver is right - this would be detrimental to economic growth in our city, and I hope that our local leaders will fight tooth and nail to keep this from happening.

Little Lamb
49260
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Little Lamb 07/23/09 - 09:26 am
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The writer forgot to mention

The writer forgot to mention that if they threaten to take water from Savannah River and pump it into the Chattahoochee, that South Carolina will squawk as loud as did Alabama and Florida.

Little Lamb
49260
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Little Lamb 07/23/09 - 09:28 am
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Comparing the Savannah River

Comparing the Savannah River reservoirs' acreage with the Chattahoochee River reservoirs' acreage is meaningless. What counts is how many cubic feet per second FLOWS in the rivers, not how much is temporarily backed up.

Little Lamb
49260
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Little Lamb 07/23/09 - 09:31 am
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And another thing the

And another thing the politicians do not understand is that whatever water Atlanta "takes" from the Chattahoochee is eventually returned to the Chattahoochee through groundwater recharge or rainfall. You do not destroy water simply by sucking some of it out of a river.

jackrabbit5491
0
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jackrabbit5491 07/23/09 - 11:07 am
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The politically connected

The politically connected Southern Company-Southern Nuclear-Georgia Power should save us because the Savannah River water level needs to be kept high for the 2 and 4-in the future-nuclear reactors to operate.

Little Lamb
49260
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Little Lamb 07/23/09 - 12:23 pm
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Yeah, but Southern Nuclear

Yeah, but Southern Nuclear also operates a nuclear plant on the lower Chattahoochee River. They need water, too.

RebelTA
1
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RebelTA 07/23/09 - 02:14 pm
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Atlanta needs to solve their

Atlanta needs to solve their own problem. The greed and lack of foresight when developing infrastucture should not become the rest of georgia's problem. They created the problem without our assistance let the solve it without raping and robbing the state.

mooseye
276
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mooseye 07/23/09 - 08:44 pm
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Why should not the city of

Why should not the city of atlanta,ga have to buy and pay for water that they themselves cannot produce? Get your pocket book out and I bet someone will get you all the water you need! Water is a resorse, not a possesion. If there was a river of oil flowing between georgia and tennessee, do you think atlanta should get it because they have more cars?

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