The Water Brigade
A panel of experts looks at the state’slong-term water problems and what it will take to solve them. The biggest challenge may be educating the public.
Brian Thomas, Georgia House of Representatives
Despite the heavy autumn rains that ended a two-year drought, Georgia still has water troubles. A federal judge’s ruling that Atlanta has no claim on Lake Lanier water and the three-year timeline imposed for reaching an agreement with Alabama and Florida have been on everyone’s mind. But beyond that, basic issues of supply, allocation and management must be addressed.
Georgia Trend convened a panel of experts from around the state and asked them to talk candidly about concerns and solutions. The resulting discussion forms the basis of a two-part story.
This month we examine citizens’ attitudes toward water, inter-basin transfers and agriculture’s water needs. In February we’ll look at specific strategies and successful local initiatives.
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.
Following are edited excerpts from the discussion.
GT: Do people around the state picture Atlanta with a big straw trying to suck up all the water?
SMITH: Every time I go out in my district, the attitude is Atlanta is aloof or removed from the rest of the state.
COUCH: The creation of councils [part of the state water plan adopted in 2008] addressing regional needs is providing a wonderful opportunity to evaluate current and future uses and the environmental impact. I am hopeful the dialogue helps to frame that urban/rural tension.
SMITH: There are a lot of myths out there. Economic development keeps coming up. Like, if Atlanta’s growth is restrained, then does that mean the projects will go around to the rest of the state? Limiting Atlanta doesn’t mean prosperity elsewhere in the state. What it means is prosperity in Charlotte, in Houston, in Dallas.
STAFFORD: This is not an Atlanta issue, this a state issue. I think that water study is going to have a big impact.
SMITH: I carried the legislation on the outside. It was very tense. Traditional alliances were being broken.
MIKE THOMAS: When people say “Atlanta,” it’s not just Rob Hunter and downtown Atlanta. There’s a lot of us involved in this process. I think we’ve done more for water conservation in Atlanta than just about anywhere on the east coast, maybe save for Florida.
COPE: My biggest concern is that the average citizen is inundated with things from both sides of issues and never really gets to the center that is factual science. And [that citizen] never really is told this is the impact to you, to your children and your grandchildren, and why you need to think about things. The facts are Atlanta has done a great job. The people that I work for, the carpet industry, have done a fabulous job at conserving and controlling what they do and improving things. We need more grassroots communication.
HUNTER: Lynn used the word “myth.” I would use the word “belief.” There are regional beliefs. Part of the problem is who is an authority people will believe. If I tell you that the population of the city of Atlanta between 2000 and 2008 increased 29.2 percent and our water withdrawal from the [Chattahoochee] river decreased 20.6 percent, would you believe that? Those are actual numbers.
SINGLETARY: The sentiment, when you get in the rural areas, is that Atlanta is gobbling up all the water. People feel that way. And they all say just limit the growth. Limiting [Atlanta’s] growth doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to get it. People are going to Atlanta because they want to go to Atlanta.
STAFFORD: How do you communicate with people in your area about what is really going on?
SINGLETARY: It’s got to be done by a local person that they trust.
COUCH: That’s why I think these councils have a great deal of opportunity to help. It’s water resource planning informed by fact and establish[ing] a process. Councils are composed of individuals who are local leaders who can inform the decisions using not only facts of science but local wisdom.
SINGLETARY: In our council [in south Georgia], we are not having a lot of public participation. It’s early in the process.
BRIAN THOMAS: In the legislature [mistrust of Atlanta] is the key issue in terms of any discussion about water. There are people who are very intelligent and sensible, but their folks back home have that belief. They are going to reflect their constituents’ views. It’s very hard for them to turn around and to tell them, “No, no, no, Atlanta’s not really that bad,” because their folks are going to think they have been co-opted. They have been brainwashed by the Atlanta crowd.
SMITH: That was a difficult vote [for the legislation creating the water plan] to get.
BRIAN THOMAS: It was. I supported the plan.
SMITH: You took a lot of heat. I watched you take it.
BRIAN THOMAS: The issue is still out there that a lot of people believe these water councils should not be representing sub-sets of the river basin or the drainage basin; it should be basin-wide. So the extent to which those issues are bridged through this process is going to make a big difference.
COPE: And that goes back to what everybody’s been saying – that the issue is getting the public educated and involved. I can tell you that the public where I live [in Dalton and Whitfield County] they say this is my land. You can threaten them with penalties and fines and cut their water off and they’re going to live the way they want to live unless you educate them and give them a motivation to change.
BULLOCH: The feeling [in my district in South Georgia] is this land is mine and everything on it and everything under it and everything above it is mine. That’s the mindset and mentality of most of us, including myself. But when we passed out the statewide water plan, we included on each council four representatives of the municipal government and four from the county government. In rural South Georgia, most of these elected officials are people the community trusts. They’ve been there for generations. I mean, I’m a fourth generation on the same farm. And Steve, he’s probably the 10th or 12th generation.
COUCH: He came before Oglethorpe.
BULLOCH: We took a lot of heat in trying to develop and roll up these [water] districts. If you had created a district based on the river basin – let’s just use the Chattahoochee [as an example] – the Chattahoochee basin area, when you get down to southern Georgia, is a very narrow basin on the Georgia side and the Alabama side. We don’t have a lot of drainage area that goes in it. Now the Flint is a massive drainage area. It starts below Atlanta. And the needs in those areas are different. And so drawing my county line, drawing the lower Flint and the lower Chattahoochee, that’s a common-type interest – and it’s agriculture. We have surface water needs, and we have ground water needs.
GT: Can the water councils really help?
BULLOCH: As we try to educate people that this is a statewide issue it’s going to take these water councils to understand it first, because some of our people don’t understand it now. Some of the people who serve on the water council, their thought process, when we look at reservoirs, is that you are capturing our water. You’re stopping the flow of water from coming down the Flint River. They don’t like y’all [in Atlanta].
HUNTER: Tell me something new.
BULLOCH: We are not a state that has a deficit in water. We have some areas that at times have a deficit. We’ve got to educate people. People don’t understand that the Chattahoochee River in the past 10 years probably would have gotten down to a trickle if it had not been for Lake Lanier, because we weren’t getting rainfall.
HUNTER: Someone mentioned if a business doesn’t relocate to Atlanta, will they go to someplace else in the state or will they go to Charlotte? That Piedmont area mega-region that’s being described now from Birmingham through Atlanta to Charlotte up to Raleigh/Durham shares one thing in common. They’re all way up the watersheds. And when a business says, I don’t think I am going to relocate to Atlanta because there’s this whole water issue, the same thing applies all across that region. It’s not just in Atlanta, it’s not just Georgia, it’s also North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama. We have to get out of this mode of, well, if I can prevent them from getting this [business], I stand a better chance. Because they [business prospects] are not looking at Charlotte, they’re looking at St. Louis.
COUCH: The intrastate issues are well known, but we have tenacious issues between South Carolina and Georgia on where we are putting our waste, who’s getting saltwater intrusion. Inter-basin transfers are occurring in South Carolina. For those concerned some big straw coming down [from Atlanta] is a factor, there’s a 100-million gallons per minute withdrawal in South Carolina for inter-basin transfers.
GT: Regional connections are increasingly important.
COPE: Let’s think about Tennessee water for a minute, the Tennessee River. The Tennessee River does not, by and large, originate in Tennessee. It originates in Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina and South Carolina and significantly in North Georgia. There’s probably more rainfall and more water originating in Georgia that goes to the Tennessee River than the Atlanta metro region uses in any day. Tennessee is a regional partner, certainly, for those of us who border Tennessee. [In Dalton] I buy water from Tennessee to augment my supply. I return water to Tennessee. We need to find a way to partner with those people to share the benefit of the water without getting in a fight about it.
SMITH: Hello, federal government.
COPE: If you hurt Atlanta, I promise you, you’re going to hurt Chattanooga. If you hurt Atlanta, you may, at some point, help Birmingham or help Charlotte, but you’re going to help St. Louis and then you’re going to help Pittsburgh. The Southeastern United States is an economic unit.
GT: Let’s talk about inter-basin transfer. Is that a viable strategy for addressing future needs?
COUCH: Inter-basin transfers exist now; they will need to exist in the future. The degree to which inter-basin transfer of water in large quantities becomes a priority in any area of the state has to start with the questions that we’re posing in the state planning process. What are the consequences and impacts of upstream/downstream support?
GT: Is conservation a part of that?
COUCH: Requiring conservation. Talk to us about how you maximize cost effective conservation. That will be one of the filters for the inter-basin proposals.
SMITH: I can add a legislative side. Every year there are lots of bills that are introduced saying things like “no inter-basin transfers.” Just black and white. This year I asked how many counties in Georgia have more than one watershed? If you have more than one watershed you’re talking inter-basin transfer. It’s 108 counties. A lot of them are very poor counties. You withdraw from one but you might discharge from the other because of geography. We’ve got all these counties with either two or three river basins. You can’t remove political divisions of the state from your issues. For example, Taliaferro, less than 2,000 residents, has three basins. If we tell them that they cannot do any inter-basin transfers, how are they going to be able to afford the structure necessary to provide the services for their community? You also have to ask what’s fair.
COPE: You’ve got to look at what the water produces. How many times do you use the water? I grow trees. I use [treated] wastewater that causes trees to grow. I pay for some of the operation through harvesting those trees. The wastewater is used a second time to cool the power plant that has no withdrawal permit. It produces 1,240 megawatts of electrical power and doesn’t withdraw any ground water or any surface water. It is cooled completely and totally with [treated water].
SMITH: We’ve got to get over the emotional issue of recycling and [reusing wastewater].
HUNTER: When we talk about indirect reuse and what is referred to in the industry as the yuck factor, if you look at the Chattahoochee River, we have indirect reuse. Water is being withdrawn, it’s being discharged, either into Lake Lanier or the Chattahoochee River, and it’s being withdrawn [again]. Yes, it is diluted. And, yes, it’s highly treated, but all down the river, it is being taken out and returned. In the next 20 years, we’re going to see a lot more visible indirect reuse, and in 50 years, probably sooner, I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have direct reuse, where we are making wastewater directly into drinking water, which is done around the world and done safely.
COPE: The treatment process is available.
HUNTER: The question of reuse and how you’re using that water – the critical factor is the net use. Everything that doesn’t trans-evaporate or go into biomass gets back to the river, but that’s part of the calculation. For this area, the critical thing in terms of the water balance and water downstream is how much of the water that you’re taking out gets back to the river.
GT: Let’s talk about the state’s largest industry – agriculture – and water.
BULLOCH: We’ve already gone through six years of moratorium when we could not drill any wells in the Lower Flint River basin area for agricultural purposes. And that just devastated Early County, Calhoun County, Baker County. Agriculture couldn’t expand. We were in a drought situation. You take the soil patterns: I live on the Ochlocknee River Basin area; if you don’t irrigate, you can’t farm.
SINGLETARY: We still have a moratorium on one aquifer down there and it’s a primary one for where my farm is in Blakely. We have not been able to drill.
BULLOCH: In agriculture, [there’s] the cost to pump water, the cost to maintain the irrigation systems. We don’t want to be pumping water unless we need it. One of the misconceptions that some people have is that agriculture is foolish and wasteful and we aren’t.
COPE: You assume if someone has an agricultural withdrawal permit to withdraw 5 million gallons a day, they will withdraw 5 million gallons a day. Well, they’re not. I listened to a guy [at our last water council meeting] who says, “Yeah, I got a permit for 6 million gallons a day. I may do that on average two times a summer and the rest of the time, I’m withdrawing 1,500 gallons just to operate. But I’ve got to have this permit in case I get that one-time demand to keep the crop alive.”
SINGLETARY: That’s where the metering program comes in. It’s put in some real numbers on how much we are actually using.
BULLOCH: Conservation is on everybody’s mind.