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Which Way Forward for Georgia?

February 14, 2011

Happy Monday, everybody – the weekend’s headlines brought a lot of discussion about the best way forward for Georgia water supply policy, so let’s dive in and catch up.

Georgia River Network’s own April Ingle has a guest column up at the Saporta Report, laying out clearly the fact that planning on building new reservoirs is far from the most cost-effective way to ensure future water supply. As other options to be explored, she highlights investing in conservation and efficiency, exploring the expansion of existing flood control reservoirs, and assessing the feasibility of raising the full pool level at Lake Lanier by two feet – a commonsense idea that would provide 26 billion (with a B!) gallons more storage capacity in the lake. True statewide planning, she argues, should be based on true needs and shared costs – not on who gets to profit by building dams or selling water.

The efficiency tack was echoed in the Saturday AJC, where American Rivers’ Jenny Hoffner argued convincingly in this op-ed that at least some of the state’s investment in water supply should go toward work on water efficiency measures – which would increase supply and create jobs now, rather than 10 years in the future.

(That op-ed ran alongside an AJC house editorial which praised Gov. Nathan Deal and state leaders for their action lately on water issues, including Deal’s commitment of funding to water supply. While it’s true in a broad sense that forward motion is a good thing, it’s also troubling that new reservoirs are so often seen as the sole and obvious destination…)

And while Georgians debate the best way forward on water policy, our neighbors in Alabama continue to pay close attention. News is still coming out on how the state of Alabama feels about Georgia’s recent rulemaking on interbasin transfers (IBTs) of water. “[Georgia] just complicated the matter and probably created ill will,” says one Alabama political scientist, while state officials there say they’re “disappointed” that comments they sent were ignored in Georgia’s rulemaking process.

For the background on this big story, see our last post. The key here, as the AJC has reported, is that letters from various entities downstream of Metro Atlanta – in Alabama and in Georgia – were not made known to Georgia DNR Board members before their vote on IBT rules last month. The letters were essentially ignored.

Also notable: the fuller version of last Wednesday’s AP report on Gov. Nathan Deal’s speech this week to the Georgia Farm Bureau. Deal seems to be hanging his whole plan on something we hear often about new reservoirs: that they’ll actually increase downstream river flows rather than eroding them.

After the speech, Deal told reporters that a negotiated settlement with Alabama and Florida will probably involve guaranteeing minimum water flows in rivers leading into those states. Having water stored in more reservoirs upstream would give officials the ability to supplement river flows during droughts.

Deal’s budget proposal would earmark $46 million in borrowing for new reservoirs…

It’s unclear how Deal’s proposal will be received by his bargaining partners, who have argued that Georgia uses more than its fair share of the region’s water.

It’s also unclear how officials can plan on being able to ‘supplement drought flows’ in a region where droughts may well be getting longer and more severe, and in river systems already influenced by so many competing demands. (The state of the state’s reservoirs just a few years ago serves as good evidence.) Fold in the prospect of more interbasin transfers in North Georgia, and this picture gets even less clear.

At the Water Wire, we’ve long assumed that some interests in Georgia have viewed Judge Magnuson’s ruling on Lake Lanier opportunistically, as providing a chance to build more dams – even when they aren’t needed or won’t help Georgia negotiate with its neighbors. It appears that that sell is still on, although other options are very clearly on the table.

-Ben Emanuel

2 Comments leave one →
  1. DrinkMoreWater permalink
    March 8, 2011 8:48 pm

    The story found here is rather misleading when it says “Boston made a commitment to water efficiency, and it uses less water today than it did in 1911”
    I’m not sure how this can be said. Boston has less population now than in 1910 and yet still uses more water than then. Plus large reservoirs were built to help meet demand.

    Here are the facts:
    The population of Boston in 1910 was 670,585. In 2009 the population is an estimated 645,169.

    Boston built a large number of reservoirs beginning with a pivotal 1895 study, as found here:
    In 1910 the water use was 116 mgd according to the above referenced report.

    In 2009 the water usage was 194.3 mgd as found here:
    Note that the webpage says this:
    “MWRA’s source reservoirs, the Quabbin and Wachusett, can be counted on to safely provide about 300 million gallons per day of water. This amount is called the “safe yield.” “

  2. garivernetwork permalink*
    March 21, 2011 2:02 pm


    Thanks for the comment. My understanding is that the service area of the utility that serves Boston (the MWRA) is larger than the city of Boston itself – and that the growth in water customers has come as the MWRA has expanded its service area. (I’m not clear on 100% of the details on when that happened, but this National Geographic brief indicates that some of it happened after the aggressive efficiency campaign there, when there came to be surplus water supply: Either way, I hope that helps make the numbers match up.)

    The MWRA’s own web page that you linked is very interesting, I think. The section on “safe yield” goes on to say that the system was “routinely” withdrawing an amount greater than the safe yield back in the 1970s and ‘80s. But: “To address this problem, MWRA launched an aggressive water conservation program in 1986. By 1989, withdrawals had been brought below the safe yield, where they have remained ever since.”

    There’s a bulleted list there of the various water efficiency strategies on that page too. ( — I, for one, would be interested to know the demand reduction breakdown across all the different strategies.) The chart ( is fascinating too.

    So yes, there are large reservoirs that help meet demand in the Boston area, but the story here is that the community literally negated the need for a $500 million additional reservoir by investing $40 million in a vigorous efficiency program. That would seem to hold some parallels to the current situation in Georgia: lots of storage infrastructure already built, with a question of how much we really need to spend to build more.

    I’d be glad to dig into the Massachusetts numbers more with you – just let me know.


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