Atlanta unfairly blocks reservoirs
By John O. Miller
6:31 p.m. Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Metro Atlanta has been blessed with a deluge of late-summer rains. But the downpours will do little to address a historic drought and our long-term water crisis.

We need new strategies now to ensure that the water needs of metro Atlantans can be met, and we need to work together — and not at cross-purposes — to create more water storage capacity in our region.

This came into sharp focus when U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled July 17 that Congress never intended for Lake Lanier to be used for water-drinking purposes. Judge Magnuson gave the region three years to resolve two decades of water conflicts with Florida and Alabama.

Failing a new congressional resolution allowing metro Atlanta to use this critical water supply for drinking purposes, metro Atlanta’s water withdrawal, the judge ruled, must revert back to 1970s levels.

But of course, our growth has exploded since the 1970s. Gwinnett County alone pulled 13 million gallons a day from the Chattahoochee River in the mid-’70s. Today it averages 88 million gallons a day. So what happens if our region is forced to revert to 1970s water withdrawal levels?

According to water supply experts, constructing new reservoirs must be a key component of an overall strategy to assure adequate water supplies. The Georgia General Assembly created the South Fulton Municipal Regional Water and Sewer Authority for the purpose of ensuring future water supplies for south Fulton County.

The authority is well into the planning stages of constructing the Bear Creek Reservoir.

Land for the reservoir has been secured and an application has been submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The reservoir will provide 16.44 million gallons of water a day to the south Fulton region. The 440-acre project is one of three reservoirs currently supported by the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Authority.

Unfortunately, Atlanta is fighting construction of this vital project. Why? Because Union City and Fairburn, two of the three cities which make up the South Fulton Water and Sewer Authority, currently purchase water from Atlanta.

Atlanta not only wants to maintain that arrangement, but is also seeking to expand into areas never before served by Atlanta, and is actively fighting our permitting efforts with federal and state agencies.

And yet, residents in south Fulton have every right to an independent source of water, a fact underscored by the General Assembly when it created the authority.

Moreover, the citizens of south Fulton are under no contractual obligation to purchase water from Atlanta. It is simply a timeworn practice Atlanta has grown accustomed to.
But while it is fighting this important project, even Atlanta must acknowledge the need for the region to expand its water storage capacity. Atlanta itself intends to do so with the Bellwood quarry, one of its Beltline amenities, and is also entertaining proposals to build a 2,000-acre reservoir on city-owned land in Dawson County.

Reasonable public policy dictates that no one stand in the way of those projects, and we would hope Atlanta would end its opposition to our project as well.

Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. We’re one large, thirsty region, and we don’t want to slow economic growth because of a lack of water. That means taking advantage of all the storage capacity opportunities available and working collaboratively to address our regional water needs.

Our region is not well-served by relying upon one large service provider whose own water supplies are imperiled. We should be banding together as a region to create water storage capacity in places that meet the stringent standards of the state and federal governments.

We’d like to call on the city of Atlanta to withdraw its opposition and join a partnership of governments across metro Atlanta seeking to expand our water storage capacity.

John O. Miller is mayor of Palmetto and chairman of the South Fulton Municipal Regional Water and Sewer Authority.