The Most Effective Approach To Georgia’s Water Problems?
As the New Year kicks-off, it’s worth putting a critical new policy program – the Governor’s Water Supply Program – under the spotlight. The state intends to distribute $300 million over the next four years for new water ventures. Full implementation however, will take decades given the nature of eligible projects. And the environmental and financial outcomes, particularly for schemes that may never actually get finished, will be with tax payers and communities for the long haul.
In 2011, Gov. Nathan Deal directed the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) to produce and administer the Governor’s Water Supply Program. The Governor also pledged to set aside $300,000,000 over the next four years to fund regional water supply projects. Two-thirds of this pledge will get funneled through GEFA low-interest loans, and $100,000,000 will go to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
The state’s 2012 budget year called for the issue of $45,750,000 worth of general obligation bonds through DCA (grants that entail direct state investment in and ownership of projects) and GEFA (loans to local entities who will maintain ownership of these projects and have forty years to pay off the loans). GEFA has requested applications for projects and their goal is to push the first pot of gold out the door by summer 2012.
After reading Water Supply Program press releases and media coverage, “eligible” projects include wells, desalination, and other supply-side projects. But a closer reading of the Report of the Water Supply Task Force presents a reservoir-centric blueprint and financial planning process.
For example, the “Funding Overview” (Appendix D) makes it clear that the state intends to fund reservoirs and virtually no other water supply projects for the next four years. Another example: The Water Supply Program administrators are directed to evaluate and score different projects types (see Appendix F & G). New reservoir projects and enhancements are in the upper tiers followed by (and in decreasing order of preference) wells, water delivery system interconnections, indirect potable water reuse, and emerging technologies (desalination, aquifer storage and recovery, etc.).
So what are we to make of this program?
First, $300,000,000 over four years will not go very far because new reservoirs are expensive. Two proposed reservoirs in North Georgia (Dawson Forest and Glades) have a combined expected price of $950,000,000. So which proposed reservoir projects are poised to reap the Water Supply Program’s rewards? Given the realities of geography and gravity, a north Georgia reservoir project like Dawson Forest is more likely to curry GEFA’s favor. Given that Glades planners must spend more money to complete an Environmental Impact Statement, there is a high probability the money might flow to a centrally located regional project. Money could also head to Hard Labor, however geography is not on the project’s side.
Second, the program is not set up to evaluate or fund the most cost-effective methods available to local communities: conservation and efficiency projects. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division estimates that water conservation and efficiency measures can cost $0.46 to $250 per 1,000 gallons secured while new reservoirs can cost $4,000 per 1,000 gallons secured.
Third, the other eligible projects? While interbasin transfers (IBTs) are not named as eligible projects, it’s possible that new IBTs could emerge in situations where water authorities interconnect and gain the ability to deliver treated water across basin boundaries. Also, where is the pressure to evaluate desalination coming from? This is by far the most expensive and energy intensive option on the list, but given its place on that list, is perhaps not really that popular and is actually a red herring.
Finally, we welcome the Governor’s Water Supply Program’s intention to expand and convert existing reservoirs. That would be an excellent environmental and financial investment for Georgians. As such, we would particularly like to see the state spend the $2,140,000 appropriated in the 2012 budget to study the feasibility of raising Lake Lanier’s storage by two feet. This would create over 25 billion gallons to meet the needs of downstream communities, of lake users, and for water supply much more quickly and at a lower cost than many other proposed water supply strategies. It’s certainly worth the investment to study how that particular water supply solution could benefit Georgia and its neighbors.