Water wars: Atlanta 's loss might be felt across state

ATLANTA --- Jobs and other economic benefits that don't flow to Atlanta because of its water- supply problems aren't likely to trickle down to Augusta and other parts of the state, many experts say.

Rather than benefiting, other cities in the region are more likely to suffer along with Atlanta.

When a federal judge in Jacksonville, Fla., ruled last month that the 1946 federal legislation creating Lake Lanier didn't authorize Atlanta to withdraw drinking water, some outside the city greeted the news as an economic opportunity

"The significance of today's ruling for Alabama's economic and environmental future is tremendous," Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said in a statement issued shorty after the ruling was announced. "Atlanta has based its growth on the idea that it could take whatever water it wanted whenever it wanted it and that the downstream states would simply have to make do with less."

Because Atlanta uses only about 1 percent of the water that would otherwise flow to Alabama and Florida, many Georgia officials feel Mr. Riley's actual goal was to hobble Atlanta's growth rather than to add water to the other states.

Judge Paul Magnuson's ruling could very well do that because complying with it would require roughly 1 million people to move, leaving the metro area frozen at the size it had reached by the 1970s.

Some Georgians outside of Atlanta also envision benefits.

"This is a very good opportunity. We can try to secure some manufacturing," said Roy Patel, an officer with Savannah real-estate developer BPR Properties. "We've got everything a business would need if someone will knock on some doors."

IT might not be that simple. Industry recruiters and the consultants companies hire to find locations say Atlanta's loss isn't necessarily Augusta or Savannah's gain.

"If Atlanta is not going to work from a water standpoint, it doesn't automatically mean that other communities in Georgia will get that investment," said William Hearn, a widely published expert and managing director of Site Dynamics, an international site-selection firm.

First, he says, many companies will eliminate the state from consideration if they think a water shortage disqualifies Atlanta. Second, company requirements might limit them to large cities.

The water issue shouldn't pit one part of Georgia against another, says Harold Reheis, a former director of the state Environmental Protection Division.

"Since we are the economic engine for the state, the pain is going to be all over," he said. "We don't need to be wishing for metro Atlanta's demise thinking it will make the rest of Georgia richer."

GOV. SONNY PERDUE has tried to make that point in a series of meetings with business and civic leaders and ordinary residents.

He has argued that every Georgian has a stake in seeing Atlanta remain economically vibrant. Most industry recruiters in water-rich parts of the state see it the same way.

"I don't see this as being a sort of an 'us against them' situation," said Allen Burns, the executive director of the Coastal Georgia Regional Development Center in Brunswick. "Atlanta is a huge drawing card for the state."

The Development Authority of Richmond County hasn't tried to gain from Atlanta's woes when meeting with industrial prospects, Executive Director Walter Sprouse said.

"We haven't changed our marketing strategy to say 'Hey, we have a lot of water,' but we answer their questions when they ask them," he said. Augusta doesn't really compete head-to-head with Atlanta for the same prospects anyway, he added.

The state is appealing Judge Magnuson's ruling; Mr. Perdue is trying to restart negotiations with Mr. Riley and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist; and Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson said his staff has discovered 19 other states -- and possibly more -- that could be hurt by the ruling, providing incentive for them to support action in Congress to change the law to allow withdrawals from Corps of Engineer lakes.