Grabbing for Water
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis told those attending the town hall meeting last week that the county is continuing to explore the possibility of selling water from the Apalachee River to metro-Atlanta to help meet that area’s water needs.
What Davis did not say was that the county would need a change to state legislation to make it possible for the county to even enter into such an agreement, as current state law bans such a transfer of water to metro-Atlanta.
And he didn’t say that his openness to transferring water from the Oconee River basin to meet metro-Atlanta’s needs is at odds with the position being taken by many outside Atlanta who are guarding their water resources against what is being termed a potential "water grab" by Atlanta.
At the town hall meeting, the five commissioners were asked what their concerns were as the Georgia General Assembly debates how to address the water needs of Atlanta following the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Magnuson that metro-Atlanta has been illegally withdrawing water from Lake Lanier.
The judge ruled last summer that, unless Congress approves a change in restrictions on water withdrawal from the lake, northeast Georgia must return to levels of water withdrawal from the 1970s.
In response to the town-hall question, Oconee Commissioners Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton expressed caution about transfer of water from the Apalachee to metro-Atlanta, with Hale saying "I can assure you I’m going to fight very hard that they do not come in and take the resources we need to move into the future."
Davis’ response to the question was considerably more positive.
"We have expressed about the potential of utilization of that water up until the time it is needed for Oconee County for perhaps other jurisdictions and our selling that water," he said.
According to Jill Johnson, program director for Georgia Conservation Voters, none of the legislation she knows of that is currently being considered by the Georgia General Assembly would authorize transfer of water out of the Oconee River basin to metro-Atlanta.
Oconee and Walton counties are partnering on construction of the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir in Walton County. Financing of the project has been made more difficult by the drought and the housing market collapse, both of which have adversely affected water sales.
Oconee County residents were told that the costs of the county’s participation in the project would be covered by the sale of water to new customers, and that seems unlikely at present.
Ultimately, general county tax revenues could have to be diverted to the project to cover costs.
Officials from the two counties have been exploring the possibility that the state would cover some of the construction costs in return for an agreement to transfer water to metro-Atlanta.
Johnson said she doubts that monies will be allocated for that purpose in this legislative session.
Johnson told me her assessment of the current legislative climate between sessions of the Georgia River Network Conference on Jekyll Island this weekend.
Interbasin transfers of water, which is what the county would be engaged in if it sold water to metro-Atlanta, were strongly criticized at the two-day conference.
The most likely recipient of the Apalachee River water would be Gwinnett County, which currently draws all of its drinking water from Lake Lanier.
According to Johnson, current state law forbids the 15-counties that make up the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District from engaging in new transfers of water from outside that district. Gwinnett is part of that group.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has submitted water legislation to the state House and Senate, but it does not allow for interbasin transfers, Johnson said. Other legislation also is being proposed, but none, as far as she knows, would allow Oconee and Walton to sell water to metro-Atlanta.
Walton County had been a part of the district Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, but it withdrew when it worked out the agreement with Oconee County on Hard Labor Creek.
Walton is in two watersheds, the Oconee and the Ocmulgee. Water would be drawn from the Apalachee River, which runs between Walton and Oconee Counties, to fill the reservoir in southeastern Walton County.
Hard Labor Creek is a tributary to the Apalachee, so unless water transferred to the more urbanized western part of Walton County is transferred back after use, the Oconee watershed will lose water as a result of the two-county partnership even without the transfer to metro-Atlanta.
I attended the meeting on Jekyll Island because I had been selected by the Georgia River Network as the 2010 Volunteer of the Year Award recipient. The group cited my work as founder of Friends of Barber Creek and this blog in making the award.
I received the award at a ceremony on Friday night, the end of the first day of the conference.
More than 100 people from around the state attended the conference, and interbasin transfers were a frequent topic during the sessions.
Participants, in fact, were urged to sign the No Water Grabs petition being organized by the Georgia Water Coalition, a collection of groups around the state interested in water quality. The Georgia River Network and Friends of Barber Creek are members.
Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club with the Georgia legislature, summarized the mood of the state about interbasin transfers this way: "People outside the area of Atlanta are aware that their resource is under siege."
Jenny Hoffner, director of the Atlanta office of American Rivers, a national advocacy group for rivers, was among several speakers at the Georgia River Network conference raising questions about reservoir construction under any circumstance.
"Dams kill rivers and kill wetlands," she said, "And they cost a lot of money."
She advocated increased focus on conservation, noting that both Seattle and Boston have reduced water consumption in recent years despite growth in population.
The Oconee County BOC considered other reservoir sites before voted 3-2 in 2007 to join Walton County on Hard Labor Creek. Commissioners Hale and Horton voted against the partnership.
None of the discussion at the time focused on alternatives to building a new reservoir.
Jekyll Island Beauty