Southern water battle waged in Washington

11/02/07 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Friday | Listen to this entire show:

Yesterday, the governors of Florida, Georgia and Alabama met in Washington, D.C., with federal officials to craft an interim solution to a long-standing water dispute.

A severe drought in the southeast United States has contributed to decreasing water levels in Lake Lanier, a source of much of metropolitan Atlanta’s drinking water. Water from that north Georgia reservoir is also released into the Chattahoochee River and flows downstream to the Flint River and the Apalachicola River in Florida.

Because of the drought, water outflows from Lake Lanier had been reduced to 5,000 cubic feet per second, but yesterday’s agreement allows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to request a further reduction in outflow by 16 percent to 4,200 cubic feet per second.

Andy Smith is executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization based in the Panhandle and dedicated to the protection the Apalachicola River and its tributaries.

“We think it’s a betrayal of the people of the Apalachicola Basin. We’re already under chronically low water conditions with the 5,000 cubic feet per second that has been in place, has been the river flow since May and we’re already seeing negative impacts from that in the oyster beds and upriver and this is just going to create more negative impacts.”

Joe Murphy, the Florida program coordinator of the Gulf Restoration Network, said the serious lack of rainfall over the Southeast isn’t the only cause of this water war between the three states.

“The real profound, prolonged drought that has happened in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, is the drought of political leadership and political will to say 'no' to rampant growth, to say 'yes' to environmental and water conservation, and to really decide once and for all that communities should be about having sustainability and quality of life, not about making developers a lot of money by cramming in as many people as they can and then walking away once there’s a problem. Growth only happens when it’s permitted and allowed by a community to take place. And communities have the right to say, you know what, we’ve reached our limit; we’ve reached our capacity. We’re done. We need to figure out a way to grow smarter.”

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue issued a directive for a 10-percent reduction in water use by many Georgia counties. But Andy Smith said these measures are insufficient.

“Georgia hadn’t come to the table, really, with any concessions. They’ve started doing some 11th-hour water conservation, but I hadn’t heard anything about putting a moratorium on new water connections, moratorium on new construction that’s going to be permitted … We’ve got a crisis now that’s been created by Atlanta’s failure to do meaningful water conservation all along and Atlanta’s irresponsible growth. That’s what caused this crisis...

"Atlanta’s not done anything to control growth. It’s not done anything to assess what the natural resources will sustain. They’ve just grown, grown, grown, grown, grown, without regard for the capacity of the natural system to provide them with drinking water. And so they have essentially now outgrown their water source. There’s your crisis. And they’ve outgrown it because of that unrelenting, irresponsible growth. Okay, say they got all the water out of the Apalachicola, they’re going to grow through that in no time, and then what are they going to do?”

Keith Hatcher is the senior political consultant for the Georgia Association of Realtors. Hatcher responded to claims that in addition to the drought, water level in Lake Lanier has dropped because there has been too much development in Atlanta for the amount of drinking water available.

“Well, I can’t speak to that particular accusation because this is really the first I’ve heard of it.”

Hatcher said that future development in Atlanta would be mostly determined by the housing slump. But Hatcher was uncertain whether future growth would be affected by Gov. Purdue’s request to reduce water consumption.

“I would guess it would. First of all let me speak to the 10 percent. We again wholeheartedly support the governor’s efforts there. We think it’s a good common sense approach, a good common sense first step to addressing this drought situation. In terms of development, I don’t know how that might impact on development. My guess is that the market has a lot more to do with development than any sort of controls over water at this point.”

Georgia’s proposed water conservation measures have not been sufficiently implemented, according to Betsy Nicholas, the General Counsel for Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in Atlanta.

Nicholas said there should be a balance between using Lake Lanier’s water for drinking and for downstream needs.

Smith from Apalachicola Riverkeeper said that the normal flow of water into the Apalachicola is not a steady amount, but that even without the agreed upon reductions, the flow is too low.

“It fluctuates with kind of the natural system. That’s the way it should operate is that the system should respond to rainfall events, that sort of thing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came out with a biological opinion in 2006, which established 5,000 cubic feet per second as a minimum that would ensure the survival of the endangered mussels in the Apalachicola River floodplain. Now, Florida had tried to have that number be higher. We supported that number being higher because the scientists were saying, no they actually need more water than that.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must approve the plan to reduce flow out of Lake Lanier by 16 percent, and will issue its biological opinion within the next two weeks. WMNF asked Smith if he thinks that based on their previous research the Fish and Wildlife Service would deny the request.

“I don’t really have any faith that they’re going to do that. I mean, they may, and I hope that they do. What I really do believe that they’ll do is they’ll try to ensure that that reduction occurs in a manner that will cause the least impact. I would love for them to stand up and say, ‘no, absolutely not, we won’t approve that.’ But I really don’t know where they’re going to fall on that.”

Georgia has asked a federal judge to order a 60 percent reduction or more in the flow of water to the Apalachicola River if the drought continues. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 19.

Learn More:

Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

Apalachicola Riverkeeper

Creative Loafing article: Perdue carries water for developers

Georgia Association of Realtors

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