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The Southeast Water War

You turn on the tap and water comes out. Most Americans take this for granted, but a recent district court decision has left many Atlanta-area residents uncertain about the future of their water supply.

Georgia’s Gwinnett County draws about 89 million gallons a day from the Lake Sidney Lanier reservoir. The reservoir provides water for stores, homes and businesses, but in three years the county, like most of metro Atlanta, may have to find another water source or drastically cut its consumption.

Thanks in part to the waters of Lanier, Gwinnett County has grown from a population of around 150,000 to over 750,000 in the past three decades. Now, however, neighboring Alabama and Florida say Lanier never should have been used to support the growth of Gwinnett and other North Georgia counties.

Alabama and Florida contend that the Army Corps of Engineers overstepped its bounds when it permitted Lanier to become the major water source for the Atlanta metropolitan area. The two states argue that the primary purposes for the construction of the Buford Dam, which created the reservoir, were hydropower generation, river navigation and flood control, not water supply.

According to Section 301 of the Water Supply Act, the Corps cannot take any action “which would seriously affect the purposes for which the [reservoir] project was authorized, surveyed, planned, or constructed, or which would involve major structural or operational changes” without congressional approval. In the case of Lanier, no such approval was sought. The Corps’ operating manual remained unchanged for 50 years while the actual use of the lake changed dramatically.

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled last month in favor of Alabama and Florida. His ruling requires Georgia to maintain its use of the reservoir at or below current levels for the next three years while Congress and the three states look for a solution. At the end of that period, the state must revert to mid-1970s usage levels, which would create a 75-million-gallon gap for Gwinnett County alone. Even the judge acknowledged that this would be a draconian outcome.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is eager to resolve the dispute with his counterparts in Alabama and Florida, but, if talking doesn’t work, the governor is ready to fight. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, if all else fails, he would consider redirecting rivers that feed into the reservoir. “The state of Georgia is due the use of that water, and we will make use of that water,” Perdue told reporters.

Magnuson’s ruling in the long-running case has created a crisis atmosphere in Georgia. The state’s water problem has three potential solutions: Negotiations with neighboring states, a successful appeal of the court decision, or action by Congress to legitimize Georgia’s water use. None of these is assured, and all will face resistance from downstream users who do not want to see the Southeast’s leading city monopolize a vital resource.

Seeking to regain some leverage, Perdue wants to make water policy a national issue. He contends that there are 48 other reservoirs in 17 states that are currently being used for drinking water, although they were not originally intended for that purpose. All those who rely on these reservoirs could be at risk if Magnuson’s ruling is upheld, Perdue said.

The Southeast water war may indeed be a harbinger of things to come elsewhere. Most of the United States has rich water resources, but management is typically haphazard, fragmented and conducted under antiquated rules.

Nobody can sell a home or get a loan to erect an office building if the buyer or lender is not assured that the property will have a water source. This means that the conflict between Georgia and its neighbors could produce serious economic harm even before the judge’s three-year grace period expires. Michael Sullivan, chairman of the Gwinnett County Water and Sewerage Authority, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “This is less about facilitating future growth than it is about Gwinnett’s ability to maintain what we have.”

We must learn to treat water like the valuable resource that it is, and that means thinking in terms of strategic allocation and conservation. A national review of water usage would be as refreshing as a cold glass of water on a hot summer day.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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