By Benita M. Dodd and Harold Brown
"It is remarkable how many political ‘solutions’ today are dealing with problems created by previous political ‘solutions’," conservative commentator Thomas Sowell wrote recently on the fires in Southern California. Sowell could have been talking about Anyplace, USA, but his point certainly is especially poignant when it comes to Georgia’s ongoing water challenges.
To many observers - including neighboring states - the metro Atlanta region only has itself to blame. Having mismanaged its growth into unbridled sprawl, they argue, metro Atlanta is now expecting "rescue" from everyone else who has water. It’s interesting how providing an adequate water supply is portrayed as in the interests of public safety, until, that is, the "public" is located in metro Atlanta.
Allegedly pro-environment groups addressed the Water Council at hearings in October to urge the state to "manage" (inhibit) growth, prohibit interbasin transfers and promote conservation, not add storage capacity reservoirs. And as everyone knows, "If you build it they will come." Perhaps that’s why the proposals in the Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan for reservoir development could add to the already burdensome process of permitting and construction.
The problem, however, is that the growth and metro Atlanta’s use of the water are not impacting the amount of water. Put simply, it’s Mother Nature: a drought. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees federal reservoirs including Lake Lanier, which supplies most of Atlanta’s drinking water. Brigadier General Joseph Schroedel, Corps’ division commander, blames the water shortages on "the lack of inflow" to Lake Lanier as dry weather continues. He adds, "We all must change the way we think about and use our fresh water resources."
Carol Couch, head of the Environmental Protection Division, reinforces that. "If you were to return all that water today as if metropolitan Atlanta’s demand on the Chattahoochee River did not exist, you would not see a consequential result," Couch told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Our consumption ... is not the cause of the current situation."
The U.S. Geological Survey’s web site bears that out. The Chattahoochee’s low flows were lower and more frequent in the first half of the 20th century, before Lake Lanier’s construction (1957). From 1900 to 2006, the number of days the Chattahoochee at West Point Georgia flowed at 600 cubic feet per second or less was 179.
Of those days, 148, or 83 percent, were before 1960. There were 49 days in 1925, 43 in 1931 and 39 in 1954. And in fact, of the 85 days with 500 cfs or lower flow on record for West Point, all are before Lake Lanier was built.
Those were some dry years. Which begs the question: Just how did endangered Apalachicola oysters and mussels survive the droughts in the early 1900s, when no one was there to regulate the flow for them? Today the Corps, following the law, must release water from Lake Lanier to provide an adequate flow for mussels and sturgeon downstream - never mind that no one has quite ascertained just what equals adequate flow for the critters.
Conservation and water efficiency, generally good ideas, will not fill the additional capacity needs of the growing population. Taxpayers help utilities subsidize water service to ratepayers. Utilities lose revenue when less water is used, so fining violators reported by the neighborhood snitch is one way to compensate. But Sowell, in his California column, also points out a better way: "When an economist hears about a shortage that persists for years, the first question that comes to mind is: Why doesn’t the price rise until supply and demand are equal? If you said, ‘the government,’ go to the head of the class."
The good news is that this state’s leaders are sending out the correct message, first by differentiating between the drought and the Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan currently being finessed. That no, Georgia’s current water situation - the low flow - is not metro Atlanta’s fault. It is the fault of parties who fought foresight. That yes, there is a need for a comprehensive, flexible approach that expedites solutions. And that sound science and statesmanship, not politics and junk science, should guide the Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan.
The demands of population growth in metro Atlanta have exacerbated the challenges involving water. Until recently, those challenges were facilitated by shortsighted politicians (here), competitive governments (local andout-of-state) and litigious environmental and no-growth groups. The actions of Georgia’s leaders reveal they’ve finally learned the meaning of the proverb: "You don’t drown by falling in the water. You drown by staying there."
Benita M. Dodd is vice president and Harold Brown is an agricultural scientist, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and adjunct scholar of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.