Friday, January 30, 2009

Plan for best use of Chattahoochee’s water is criticized
by Maggie Lee
Georgia Online News Service

As Lake Lanier's summer fringe of crusty red dirt displaces boats and swimmers as a symbol of summer, and metro Atlanta heads back to court to fight Florida and Alabama for a bigger gulp of shared water, it seems clear that the state would be wise to ratchet down Chattahoochee River water use.

While metro Atlanta has published a new draft water management plan, the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper thinks weak conservation requirements and building six new reservoirs will just push water problems to the next generation.

"They would be a good first step if this was 10 years ago,” says Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “Today they're unacceptable."

The Chattahoochee River basin crosses 25 Georgia counties and waters numerous cities from its headwaters in the Appalachian foothills down to the bottom-left corner of the state, where it joins the Flint and enters Florida. The river and its lakes pass through five of the state's 11 Water Planning Districts.

By the time Chattahoochee water reaches Florida, it has been used and often recycled by any number of some 60 industrial facilities, power plants or municipalities granted withdrawal permits by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

These users returned a total of 57 percent of their water back to the Chattahoochee, based on the average of daily figures from 2007. The two biggest losses are from septic systems and evaporation, in that order, according to the EPD.

In 2004 and 2008, the Georgia General Assembly commissioned and then approved a Georgia Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Plan.

Under that plan, the 11 Water Planning Districts must figure out their demand and how to provide for it. EPD must enforce the plans, determine how much pollution is too much and forecast water demands for 40 years in the future.

The 15-county Atlanta area district is the only one with a water management plan so far because the leadership of the others has yet to be appointed by the governor and House speaker, despite a December 2008 deadline.

Atlanta's plan is in fact a sequel to one that was devised in 2003. The three-volume draft plan, available online, must be updated every five years and cover water supply and conservation, waste water management and watershed management.

The new draft drew a street protest at a public hearing last month. And the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper pointed out that the plan actually cuts water conservation goals from 20 percent in 2030 to 13 percent by 2035.

"This document is little more than a list of things local government could or should do,” says the Riverkeeper’s Bethea. “There's very little accountability in this document in terms of actual performance, water productions achieved by date certain, that sort of thing.”

Bethea acknowledges the metro plan has a good menu of water conservation measures, like detecting and fixing leaks, installing sub-meters in multi-family homes, and replacing inefficient plumbing.

The metro plan doesn’t include compliance deadlines or quantitative, meaningful benchmarks. And though it recommends that local water departments establish a rate structure that makes heavy users pay more, Bethea points out that they can dodge the bullet by setting upper tiers so high that no user can reach the mark. She's concerned it will be easy to fudge compliance with several of the measures.

And she's dead set against a major piece of the plan: six proposed reservoirs on the peripheries of the metro area at an estimated cost of $394 million. Only two of these would be on the Chattahoochee, one in Hall County, one in south Fulton.

"Close to 20 percent of the water in the metro region leaks before it gets to homes and businesses, says Bethea. “Which is something you ought to fix before you go build a whole lot of expensive reservoirs."

But the chief water planner for the Metropolitan North Georgia district says the draft plans are simply what came out of a committee of 15 counties and more than 90 cities.

"This is the best plan we can come up with working with such a huge committee," says Pat Stevens, who leads the district's planning staff from its office at the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Stevens says that the proposed reservoirs are to be built in places where no one lives yet — based on projections that places like south Fulton and Hall County will grow enough to warrant the reservoirs.

And what about critics who say the plan enables even more sprawl? “I understand the discussion about sprawl,” says Stevens. "Our job is to take reasonable forecasts of reasonable, likely growth in these communities and to work with these communities in the district to make sure that the public has adequate water supply. There's a lot of anti-growth sentiment in all parts of the world, the country. But in the end public officials have to make sure the public is served."

Stevens says planners are most concerned with providing the state with a baseline supply of water that will be drought-proof. "Our ground water is scarce,” she says. “It can't support the public here. Our rainfall is extremely variable. So reservoirs have to be built to store water when it doesn't rain.”

Stevens also says the 2008 plan is an improvement over the 2003 plan, and that overall water demand will drop even lower. There are not a lot more conservation programs, but future construction is expected to be more water-wise. And she defends the lack of quantitative bench marks, saying that each community must decide its own actions based on best-management practices. She does say that setting targets to cut different kinds of water losses is something that needs to be studied.

Overall, Stevens argues Atlanta's plan is appropriate for an area with little culture of public water management and where single-family homes with lush lawns are the norm.

The three volumes of the metro water plan are up for public comment until Jan. 31. A redraft could be done as early as April, then it's up for state certification.

Still looming is the larger issue of Georgia’s battle with Alabama and Florida over water flow from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee. The issue now rests in a federal court in Jacksonville, where a judge will decide whether the U.S Army Corps of Engineers must release more water from the lake for Atlanta.

If the Jacksonville ruling puts a low-flow order on Atlanta's water use, it'll take an act of Congress to change it.

Maggie Lee specializes in quality of life topics, Atlanta's international communities and general reporting. She covers Georgia economic development and the Chinese community as a stringer for China Daily and chronicles life in Georgia's most diverse county for the DeKalb Champion.   [full bio]

Download art:
Caption: Water from the Chattahoochee River, which begins in the Appalachian foothills, has been used and often recycled by as many as 60 industrial facilities, power plants or municipalities by the time it reaches Florida.

Caption: Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, says the latest draft water management plan is "unacceptable" because of its weak conservation efforts and proposal for six new reservoirs. She called the document "little more than

Caption: Pat Stevens, who leads the Metropolitan North Georgia district planning staff, acknowledges that while there are critics of the water management plan, there are even fewer options. "This is the best plan we can come up with," she said.

Editor's note: Hello, Georgia! For the next several weeks, we'll be sending you content by some of the most outstanding journalists in the state, most of them veterans of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Creative Loafing and other news organizations. The list includes Tom Baxter, Bill Osinski, Lyle Harris and John Sugg. Additionally, you'll find a diversity of opinion (edited by former AJC editor David Beasley) from the likes of Hollis Gillespie and Ralph Reed. You are free to use it as you wish; just give us credit. You can use it in print, you can publish it on the web.

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Plan for best use of Chattahoochee’s water is criticized

by Maggie Lee
As Lake Lanier's summer fringe of crusty red dirt displaces boats and swimmers as a symbol of summer, and metro Atlanta heads back to court to fight Florida and Alabama for a bigger gulp of shared water, it seems clear that the state would be wise to ratchet down Chattahoochee River water use.
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