The Water Brigade, Part 2
In search of solutions to Georgia’s water problems, our panel of experts looks at desalination, reservoirs and successful local projects
Carol Couch, UGA professor
As Georgia was grappling with the harsh realities of a finite water supply and a federal judge’s ruling that threatens the metro area’s access to Lake Lanier, Georgia Trend convened a roundtable and called on some of the state’s most knowledgeable water authorities to talk about where we go from here.
Last month we covered citizens’ attitudes toward water, interbasin transfers and agricultural water use. This month we look at other strategies – and what’s working in places like Dalton and Clayton County.
Panelists were Sen. John Bulloch (R-Ochlocknee), a farmer and chair of the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee; Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan), a business owner and chair of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee; Rep. Brian Thomas (D-Lilburn), an archaeologist and member of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee; Rob Hunter, commissioner of watershed management for the city of Atlanta; Dr. Carol Couch, UGA professor and former head of the Georgia Environmental Protection Agency; Connell Stafford, Troutman Sanders Strategies, Atlanta, who helped develop the statewide water plan; Don Cope, head of Dalton Utilities; Mike Thomas, general manager of the Clayton County Water Authority; and Steve Singletary, a farmer from south Georgia and vice chair of the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission
GT: Let’s start with desalination, the process of removing salt from seawater to produce potable water. Is this something Georgia should be looking at?
COUCH: Desalination is a mature technology. It is used worldwide for producing freshwater. The degree to which desalination becomes part of our long-term solution is really an issue of the price. Where [do you need] water and at what rate can it be produced? The farther the distance from removal, the energy prices become a very large factor. At some point, I believe that desalination is part of our long-term solution.
COPE: You have a process that is used worldwide. There are some places that it is a primary source of water. The coast of Spain is an example, where there is a population of about eight million people and they produce 600 million gallons of water a day from desalination. Traditionally, it has been thermal and reverse osmosis processes primarily used, but there are new processes – membrane technology. If you really look at the cost of desalination, you’ve got to look at combining it with other processes. The thermal side certainly can be coupled with large-scale electrical power production near the coast. And that power production is some of the motivating force for moving it inland.
MIKE THOMAS: I can put it in an economic context. Right now we can build a traditional water plant for about one dollar to two dollars for every gallon of capacity; but to build desalination, it takes about six to 10 dollars per gallon. The same kind of perspective on the operation side: We operate at somewhere between 50 cents and $1.50 per thousand gallons, and desalination is in the three- to four-dollar range. I do believe it’s a long-term option, but I think we’ve got a long way to go to make those economics work, especially for up here. As Dr. Couch said, then we’ve got to convey it all the way up from the coast to north Georgia.
SMITH: We had a study committee with our Natural Resources Committee about three years ago on this very subject. The areas that would be impacted by this have concerns environmentally, but the technology you’re talking about where it could be used to produce electricity and do other things … that’s what I call the win-win situation. The donor and the receiver areas have to see a mutual benefit.
HUNTER: Cost will certainly continue to decline, but the scope of desalination projects varies tremendously. Local use in a situation like Tampa, Fla., where the water is produced locally, used locally, as opposed to Israel, which is changing the entire flow of water for the entire nation [with] desalination projects. People normally think of a desalination project on the coast [to] pump the water all the way to Lake Lanier. That doesn’t have to be the application. It makes more sense to use the water locally or for agriculture all the way up and look at how you substitute water and use the free force of gravity in your planning to produce water flow coming from higher elevations.
BRIAN THOMAS: On the coast of Florida the water has a lot more sediment than in other places where they are using desalination. Right now the membrane technology isn’t there really to achieve the same results on the Georgia coast that you would off of Tampa. The other thing is what do you do with brine? That is a very, very sensitive technological situation on the coast – how you’re going to deal with introducing saline solution, essentially, into the ocean. The impact on estuaries there has to be addressed, as well. I don’t know that we have the answer to that at this point.
SMITH: I don’t think we need to be afraid of asking hard questions and finding the right answers. There’s a lot of pressure on Senator Bulloch’s and Steve’s area of the state because the Chattahoochee and the Flint come together in Lake Seminole, and then they cut off Florida. So I’m thinking let’s build a desal plant in Florida and give them the fresh water and step outside the box [and say] what can we do to help solve this problem. What is wrong with saying, “Hello Florida, let’s negotiate. You need fresh water; that’s what you said. What if we partner with you and do a desal plant somewhere in Florida to make sure you have fresh water?”
GT: What about water storage – and the idea of expanding existing reservoirs?
COPE: We think there is real potential in north Georgia for [water] recovery because of how the geology is formed and the dolomites that exist, starting in New York and running down the Appalachian chain all the way through north Georgia and into Alabama. We think we have an ability to encase in the aquifer. And [later this fall] we are starting to drill a test well to determine if we can inject treated drinking water into the aquifer. The reason for treated drinking water is so that if it comes in contact with ground water that is already in the aquifer, it won’t contaminate anyone’s drinking water supply. We have done significant geological evaluation. We believe that there are large capacities above Atlanta in north Georgia and northwest Georgia. We think it can have significant benefits. It has been used and proven in 20 states already.
GT: Can you elaborate on those benefits?
COPE: Depending upon geology, you can build [underground] storage for a lot less than you can above ground storage. You don’t have the 404 Corps of Engineers process. You aren’t adversely impacting the existing lands or wetlands. You eliminate a lot of trans-evaporation. In north Georgia today, with Lanier and Allatoona and Carters and all the other surface bodies, on summer days we are trans-evaporating 100- to 150-million gallons of water off the surface of those reservoirs.
HUNTER: The reality is – and this isn’t bad or good – most of the prime hydroelectric dam sites in the state are either with the Corps or with Georgia Power. They bought the land, built the dam, took over power. Most of the sites are in north Georgia and are relatively shallow high surface areas, which leads to high evaporation. This approach avoids it. We are all keen on reservoirs. We need to do a good business analysis because a lot of the reservoirs are not sound projects. They may be great from an amenity land development standpoint but for a water resource they are not good projects.
COUCH: To build reservoirs in much of north Georgia today you will be on a stream. And there will be a threat to endangered species because of that, which makes it much more difficult to get a federal 404 permit, as well as much, much more costly in terms of the litigation. If you look across the globe in that area, at that latitude across the entire planet, there are more fish species there than anywhere else. That is a stunning fact. We have unique fish species.
SINGLETARY: There are 370-something watershed reservoirs that were built in the 1950s for flood control. The conservation commission has done a study on 20 of those to take in what it would cost and what the effects and the practicality [would be] of changing them to water supply reservoirs. They are all in north Georgia, just one or two below the fall line. This gives an opportunity for a county or two counties to go together, to develop a good water supply without having to go through all this permitting, because all that has already been done. All it would take is some reconfiguring on some dams and bringing them up to spec.
STAFFORD: That concept was what we looked at when we were structuring the water study. There were 10 or 12 reservoirs – they were lakes that existed all around the metropolitan area. They were already in place, and the question was can you take those and make reservoirs and avoid all the issues that might occur with environmental costs?
GT: Mike, tell us about your situation in Clayton County.
MIKE THOMAS: We sit on the sub-continental divide so half the county flows toward the Atlantic, the other half flows to the Gulf of Mexico. We are in the very upper end of these watersheds. There’s not any water in Clayton County. The Flint River headwaters begin in Clayton County. I’ve got a photo I show of a tree leaning over the creek, and that’s our water supply. Long ago the members of the Water Authority Board and County Commission had good foresight, looking toward the future and developing their own water supply. That was a historic moment when they decided let’s develop our own supplies here locally and began to do that with small off-stream reservoirs. But also in the 1970s, they built [what was at the time] the largest municipal land application system, where they took the treated wastewater and discharged it upstream of the drinking water reservoir.
GT: So you’ve been in the business of recycling water for a long time?
MIKE THOMAS: Since the late 1970s, early 1980s. Not long after that Dalton topped us and built a bigger land application system. Recently when we were looking at the sustainability of [our] system and the availability of land in the urban area, we realized we weren’t going to be able to expand, so that’s when we made the decision to change to constructive wetlands. The same principle as using a mechanical plant: treating the water to a very high level, then using an environmental system to kind of polish that treated wastewater and bring it back into the natural water supplies. We can do it with much less land than the spray application requires and a little bit more efficiently get that treated water back directly into our water supplies. We are in the process of totally transitioning from land application to constructive wetlands. We are working on phase four at one site. When we finish that phase, we will be returning enough water to completely eliminate the irrigation system. During the 2007 drought, our reservoirs never went below 77 percent of full capacity. When we complete this next phase, we will be returning about 60 percent of our daily needs directly back into our water supply reservoir.
GT: What’s the population you serve?
MIKE THOMAS: About 270,000 people.
STAFFORD: What is your water cost?
MIKE THOMAS: If you look at the Metro Atlanta region, we are a little bit on the low end, compared to, say, a Gwinnett-style plant, the most highly advanced plant you could build, a wonderful facility. But that kind of facility costs you close to $10 a gallon to develop. The system we developed was about $5 a gallon. Again, land availability is a big issue. But it is a technology that can be used in a lot of places.
HUNTER: We tend to throw out ideas like desalination in Savannah and pumping the water all the way to Lake Lanier or putting a pipeline or a tunnel from the Tennessee River to the metro area, which are unbelievably costly, and yet we ignore this type of application – a regional application, going to Hall County, White County, someplace with lower land prices. Instead of building a pipeline from Savannah to Atlanta, you build a tunnel to polish the water in a wetland and get back to the river system. We tend to think in small utility applications as opposed to cooperation, equitable solutions that those outlying counties with land get financial benefit [from]. If you are willing to talk about how much money it’s going to cost to pump X-hundred-million gallons a day from Savannah to Atlanta, why aren’t you willing to talk about how you fund or how you work together to do a regional solution?
GT: Rob, tell us about what Atlanta has done to decrease its water use?
HUNTER: Part is what’s going on in terms of water conservation in general: what the state has done in terms of water restrictions; what the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District has done in terms of conservation vendors; what the city has done in terms of working with our customers on conservation.
GT: If we had a statewide conservation plan and a strong enforcement mechanism, would that answer the question of whether Georgia can handle all the growth that is expected? Will conservation alone do it?
MIKE THOMAS: The best we can expect might be somewhere between the 10- to 20-percent range. It is a part of the toolbox. It is a necessary part that we’ve got to be more aggressive on. But it is not the single solution.