Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s Water and the New Water Reality

Lake Sidney Lanier Reservoir commonly known as Lake Lanier was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when they constructed the Buford Dam in 1956. According to Charles Fishman in “The Big Thirst” in the 1950’s when Lake Lanier was created the city of Atlanta did not finance a share of the project believing that the city that typically receives almost 50 inches of rain on average a year would never need the water. Atlanta has grown far beyond the expectations of those city fathers and the downstream states of Alabama and Florida have through legal action sought to limit the quantity of water Georgia can retain for their use above Buford Dam, arguing that Florida and Alabama need an adequate flow of water down the Chattahoochee River for power production and drinking water supply in Alabama and for maintaining adequate fresh water flow to the Apalachicola Bay to keep the salinity balance to maintain the estuary ecology, fishing habitats and breeding grounds in Florida. Georgia has single mindedly sought to protect the ability of Atlanta-area water utilities to withdraw unlimited water from the reservoir to meet the unrelenting water demand of the Atlanta metropolitan area for lifestyle water (gardens and green lawns) and life essential water through litigation rather than through conservation and smart planning. A grassroots effort has been launched by the local governments, water authorities, environmental groups, farm groups, industry and others-in short, the ACF stakeholders themselves, to try to achieve equitable water-sharing solutions among stakeholders that balance economic, ecological and social values, while ensuring sustainability for current and future generations.

In the Washington Metropolitan area where two states and the District of Columbia are dependent on the flows of the Potomac River they have the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, ICPRB, which was authorized by congress in 1940.  ICPRB allocates and manages water resources of the river through the management of the jointly owned (and financed) Jennings Randolph Reservoir (built in 1981), Potomac River Low Flow Allocation Agreement (1978) and the Water Supply Coordination Agreement in 1982 which designated a section of the ICPRB as responsible for allocating water resources during times of low flow and assists in managing water withdrawals at other times. These steps improved reliability of the water supply and ensured maintenance of in-stream flows to meet minimum aquatic habitat requirements. The task of cooperation may be more difficult for Georgia, Alabama and Florida where the distance creates different views of how much water is available and makes it difficult to see that they are joined in a regional watershed.

Back in Georgia- in 1989 after four years of drought, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended the 20% of the water used to generate hydroelectric power be diverted for Atlanta’s water supply.  Alabama and Florida objected and filed suit against Georgia and the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1990, arguing that diverting water to Atlanta was environmentally harmful and economically problematic, and that in any case it required congressional approval because the purpose of the Buford Dam was not to supply water to Atlanta. Thought Atlanta has an average annual rainfall of almost 50 inches a year it varies tremendously in 2007 rainfall was less than 32 inches and in 2009 it was over 69 inches.

Drought has always occurred in Georgia. Five times in the past 90 years has Georgia had multi-year droughts that were called “Droughts of the Century.” An analysis of rainfall in Georgia by the U.S. Geological Survey found that  normal and above-average rainfall years occurred or 43% of the time in the past quarter century and drought and severe drought years occurred 57% of the time. If the weather patterns change the problem could be exacerbated, but what has really changed in Georgia to make the problem acute is the population of Atlanta metropolitan area has grown from about 2 million in 1970 to 5.5 million in 2010 without giving any thought to water resources which have not increased and that unrelenting growth impacted water infiltration and hydrology.  While on average there may still be adequate water to sustain the region.  It is clear that Georgia and Atlanta need to be proactive and plan for regular prolonged drought occurring each decade. Georgia has not been at all proactive in protecting the hydrology and water infiltration and regulating consumption of water in the Atlanta metropolitan area, preferring instead litigation in order to obtain more water from Lake Lanier. Georgia has encouraged unsustainable water usage through largely unregulated growth of population, industry and agriculture without any consideration given to historic drought experience and ever increasing demand for water.

Back in 2009 (a year that saw more than 69 inches of rain in Atlanta) as part of the never ending litigation between Georgia, Florida and Alabama Federal District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Georgia either had to reach an agreement with her neighbors by July 2012, or return to 1970s water withdrawal levels. Instead of working towards an agreement, Georgia once more chose litigation and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the 1950s legislation approving the construction of the Buford Dam, (which, in turn, created Lake Lanier), anticipated that the metro-Atlanta area would need greater water withdrawal from the lake over time. The Eleventh Circuit Court overruled Magnuson’s 2012 water-sharing deadline. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case to the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls Buford Dam, telling the group to review Georgia’s water needs against the environmental impact, as well as Florida and Alabama’s water demands.

Alabama and Florida appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court,who declined to hear the case on Monday letting the decision of the EleventhCircuit Court stand. Nonetheless, none of these decisions will create water in Lake Lanier or increase water resources enough to fully supply all needs during a prolonged drought now or a shorter one as demand for water continues to grow. Lake Lanier must be shared and the demand for water during droughts has exceeded the resources available. No matter the outcome of the case Georgia will have to take responsibility for managing its water resources. “More reservoirs” is not a rational response to drought, due to several factors, including the inevitable and large-scale evaporation issue and the cost of construction. Drought is not only part of our lives, but an increasingly, a recurring part of our lives due to the impact of impervious ground cover and increased demand have had on the storage capacity of the watershed. Water usage must be rationalized to the complete hydrological cycle and reliance on water conservation and reuse to stretch existing supplies for use during drought. Finally, litigation does not increase water supplies. Lives, livelihoods, food supply and cost, and life styles are dependent on water as a community, region and nation we need to understand that. 

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