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atlanta: high and dry

(from A U.S. district court ruling that Atlanta has no right to pull drinking water from Lake Lanier should serve as a wake-up call to state leaders concerned with economic development. Peach State officials should respond with a three-pronged effort: Promoting other Georgia cities as potential sites for new and growing businesses; requiring stricter water conservation standards in new construction in metro Atlanta; and improving Georgia’s water resource infrastructure. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson’s ruling set a three-year deadline for Georgia to get congressional approval or a deal with downriver states Florida and Alabama. Otherwise, the judge will turn off the Lake Lanier spigot, leaving 3.5 million people high and dry. Because a complete ban on water withdrawals would bleed Atlanta dry, it is likely a deal will be reached – even if the next three years proves to be a bruising political fight. Indeed, Gov. Sonny Perdue is moving in that direction, assembling some corporate heavyweights from Atlanta to help carry the water. But the unsavory situation is of Atlanta’s own making, as Judge Magnuson’s ruling indicates. ”Local governments allow unchecked growth because it increases tax revenue, but these same governments do not sufficiently plan for the resources such unchecked growth will require,” the judge stated. In simple translation: Atlanta has grown beyond its reasonable impact on natural resources, water in particular. Atlanta has always been a transportation hub. But its history as a railroad town, not a river town, means Atlanta doesn’t have the plentiful surface water available in other areas of the state. A probable cap on withdrawals from Lake Lanier is likely to also cap commercial and residential growth in Atlanta. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Atlanta’s loss could be Georgia’s gain. Rome and the surrounding area in the Coosa River basin could support continued growth, as could Savannah, Augusta, and towns in south-central Georgia. As Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, put it, “Instead of trying to bring water to where all the people are, maybe people can relocate to communities where water is abundant.” It is true that Atlanta is an economic powerhouse. Its 4.5 million-person metro population accounts for about half the people who live in Georgia. But the city’s very success, while parts of southeast and central Georgia languish, is its own argument for ending the state’s Atlanta-centric development efforts, and shifting growth to areas of the state that can support it. Combined with a broader economic development plan, state and city leaders must enact real efforts to prepare Georgia for the next big drought, and for future growth. This includes imposing real conservation measures in thirsty locales like Atlanta, such as a mandate for water-saving appliances and fixtures in new construction, and requiring golf courses and public gardens to reuse treated wastewater for irrigation. Some progress is being made in this regard. The city of Atlanta is currently considering a Sustainable Building Ordinance that will address water use. The General Assembly should enact statewide conservation rules. But conservation will only take Georgians so far. An improved insurance policy would include the construction of reservoirs to bank rain and river water for drier times. Building man-made lakes has been talked about for years. Gov. Perdue, and whoever his successor might be, should dust off those plans and find a way to put shovel to dirt. The move might be pricey, but limiting Georgia’s growth by lack of preparation will cost more in the long run.

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