Issue Brief: Georgia Power Lakes
The Georgia Power Company manages about twenty dams and reservoirs located in the Chattahoochee, Savannah, and Altamaha river basins. Gov. Sonny Perdue’s 2009 Water Contingency Task Force brought these private reservoirs into sharp focus.
Since 1904, when early versions of the company built the Morgan Falls hydro-project on the Chattahoochee, Georgia Power has raised dams, built fossil fuel plants, and constructed nuclear facilities that depend on Georgia’s water to generate electricity for towns and industries of all shapes and sizes. In time, the company’s artificial lakes became multiple purpose destinations with second-home sites, public boat ramps, campgrounds, and swimming beaches. In the last twenty years, a handful of the company’s reservoirs have assumed a new job: providing drinking and agricultural water to neighboring communities. The following water deals don’t hold a candle to what happened to the Colorado River or southern California (think Chinatown), but they are important to know about for precedent’s sake.
Lake Rabun: The Georgia Power Company has granted access to, and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has permitted, the Clayton-Rabun County Water and Sewer Authority to withdraw up to 3.5 million gallons-per-day (MGD) of Lake Rabun’s water (Savannah River basin). Pumps currently withdraw raw water from the reservoir, and the water is treated, used in Rabun County, treated a second time, and some of the water is deposited in the Little Tennessee River (Tennessee River basin). Keep in mind that any community with access to, say 3.5 MGD, probably only uses a fraction of that water today or loses water in leaky infrastructure.
Lake Yonah: Currently there is a water swap between the City of Toccoa (Stephens County) and Habersham County. Georgia Power approved, and EPD permitted, the city to withdraw up to 6 MGD from Lake Yonah (Tugaloo River, Savannah River basin). Toccoa treats the water and can transfer up to 3 MGD to Habersham County, which is in the Chattahoochee River basin. This interbasin transfer (IBT) is technically legal according to Georgia law because the transfer involves treated water as opposed to raw water.
Lake Jackson: This Ocmulgee River reservoir (Altamaha River basin) has a curious history. In December 2009, the Water Contingency Task Force suggested that this reservoir function as a component in a water reuse system for Gwinnett County. However, back in 2004, Georgia Power declared that Lake Jackson’s operations could not spare a drop when Jasper County came knocking for additional water supply, as reported in a 2009 Macon.com article. In the same news story, Georgia Power spokesman Jeff Wilson said all of Georgia Power’s “lakes store little more water than is needed to make electricity.” EPD has issued no withdrawal permits for Lake Jackson’s water.
Lake Oconee: Contrary to Wilson’s statement, some Georgia Power reservoirs appear to have plenty of water to go around. The Linger Longer Community and the Reynolds Plantation have agricultural water withdrawal permits for up to 13,759 gallons-per-minute (GPM) from Lake Oconee to water the Ritz-Carlton’s seven golf courses and fill water features. (Three non-Reynolds agricultural water withdrawal permits total 4,200 GPM.) According to EPD documents, the cities of Madison and Greensboro, plus the Piedmont Water Resources entity, can withdraw up to a combined 7.3 MGD from Georgia Power’s Lake Oconee (Oconee River, Altamaha River basin). Reynolds Plantation has a sewage treatment plant onsite, and they use reclaimed water to irrigate their property. And to be fair, any water withdrawn from the reservoir to water the fairways and putting greens technically works its way back into the reservoir.
Lake Burton: This brings us back to the Savannah River headwaters and Lake Burton, a reservoir located just upstream from Lake Rabun on the Tallulah River in the Savannah River basin. The Water Contingency Task Force floated the idea to transfer 50 MGD from Lake Burton via pumps and pipes into the Soque River and the Chattahoochee River basin. But, as the December 2009 Task Force report noted, Burton’s “stakeholder sensitivity” was “highly contentious.” It is unclear which stakeholders the report’s authors referred to, but even if Georgia Power had successfully navigated the treacherous local waters, the company would have had to reckon with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to pull that much water out of Lake Burton. All major private energy company dams and reservoirs must have 30-50 year FERC licenses to operate, and it’s not clear how easily Georgia Power could make a significant amendment to a license that does not expire until 2036. You can bet that South Carolina would have declared a bi-state water war to keep Savannah River basin water from flowing to metro Atlanta via the Chattahoochee.
It’s also important to understand two other salient facts. First, Georgia Power, Alabama Power, and Gulf Power all operate facilities on the Chattahoochee River and are subsidiaries of the Atlanta-based Southern Company. Second, Georgia Power CEO Mike Garrett currently serves as Perdue’s “quarterback” and is managing the state’s response to Judge Paul Magnuson’s July 2009 decision. All this is to say that it would be helpful for all Georgians to have a crystal clear explanation from the Georgia Power Company (and the Southern Company for that matter) about Georgia Power’s roles, goals, and expectations in the tri-state water war. Such an announcement could diffuse the interstate political posturing and help ease intrastate confusion over the state’s water supply needs and realities. Plus, Georgia Power could add transparency to the tri-state Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint compact process that is now legally shrouded in secrecy.