“Desal” Could Be The Answer

Georgia’s rapid growth is threatening our water supply. We are still 15 or 20 years away from a crisis situation, but time is running out. To make matters worse, our state does not fully control its own water resources.

Desalination – or desal – systems that turn sea water from the coast of Georgia into freshwater and pump it to the Atlanta region could be a part of the mix of solutions. It should be included in our state’s water management plan. It’s an expensive solution for the present, but it might be pretty cheap 15 years from now.

Atlanta’s growth and the increasing demands of agriculture in South Georgia have been the driving forces behind the ongoing legal “Water Wars” that started in the 1990s between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. So far, Alabama and Florida are winning, a fact that has huge implications for Georgia’s growth and economy.

You have read recently that Florida is seeking control over our water in Lake Lanier and in the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. Alabama has a lot of control over the water flow in our state from the Coosa River, which begins in Rome and flows into Alabama.

The late Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama was chairman of the Senate committee that controlled the Army Corps of Engineers. He oversaw the rules and regulations that governed how the Corps managed water use and wrote the regulations to make sure Alabama came out on top. These regulations are due to be reviewed soon, and our two senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, are on point to make sure Georgia has more of a say-so in how we manage our water supply.

Last year Florida used Environmental Protection Agency “Snail Darter”-type rules to control water flows from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers that run through Georgia into the Florida Panhandle. During last year’s drought, the Corps of Engineers, at Florida’s request, restricted Lake Lanier water use in Georgia to protect endangered mussels and rare fish off the Florida Gulf Coast. This water was taken away from us, reducing the amount of water Georgia had during the drought.

Recently Florida officials have moved to make this a permanent arrangement by asking federal agencies to give them the option to review any type of action in relation to Georgia water use that could affect their state.

If this request is granted, Florida would have control – or major input – any time a city or county in Georgia wants to build a new reservoir or water treatment plant or draw additional water from any source. Florida could stop any of these plans.

Another easy solution to future problems resulting from the Atlanta region’s growth is interbasin water transfers. Augusta’s basin has plenty of water to ship to the Atlanta region, and water from the mighty Tennessee River that flows through Chattanooga, could be available if North Georgia’s population grows by another 4 million by the year 2022, as projected.

But this solution won’t be implemented. Augusta, Tennessee and other water basin areas are highly jealous of their water supply. A few years ago, when this subject came up in the state legislature, then-Mayor Bob Young of Augusta went ballistic. “There is no way we are going to give our water to Atlanta,” he said. Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Carol Couch says, “The topic of interbasin transfers is highly emotional.”

If Augusta won’t help one of its sister cities, we can bet that Tennessee won’t.

A few years ago Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin placed $300,000 dollars in her budget and asked the state to match it to do a study on the idea of building desalination plants on the Georgia coast and pumping the purified freshwater to the metro region. The state’s finances were reeling from the effects of the recession, and there was no money available to match Franklin’s offer. Asked if she would place another $300,000 in her budget in the future, Franklin said, “I’m willing if they are.” She says it’s hard to get people focused on a problem 15 years out.

Desal shipments of freshwater to the Atlanta region could have another benefit. In 15 or 20 years, the present water supply for South Georgia will be depleted as well. South Georgia farmers could tap into the pipeline to provide much needed water for their crops.

Georgia will someday run out of sufficient freshwater to supply its needs. It isn’t only an Atlanta problem, it’s a problem for the whole state. It would be better to discuss a solution now, by including desalination in the mix, instead of waiting until it’s too late.

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