On July 17, elected officials and business bigwigs uttered a collective expletive when U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that metro Atlanta had been illegally dipping its straw into Lake Lanier, the region's primary source of drinking water. After nearly 20 years of squabbling with Alabama and Florida over who deserves how much of Lanier's water, Georgia's directive from the judge was clear: By 2012, the state needs to convince Congress to authorize the continued extraction of water from Lake Lanier. If it fails, only the cities of Gainesville and Buford will be able to rely on the lake to quench their thirst.
In the month that's passed since the judge's ruling, Gov. Sonny Perdue has said he'd appeal the decision, investigate withdrawing water from local rivers, and try to reach common ground with Georgia's neighbors. He also gave the signal to dust off the bulldozers and seek more "storage capacity" — code for building additional reservoirs. Since then, "reservoir" has been the buzzword among elected officials, from gubernatorial hopefuls' stump speeches to state lawmakers' op-eds in hometown papers.
But reservoirs are costly buggers prone to cost overruns and fraught with environmental hazards and red tape. And environmentalists, who concede that reservoirs will have to be one component of Georgia's plan to provide enough drinking water to accommodate existing and future residents, say the state is overlooking a low-cost and common-sense approach that could save money, help the environment, and show metro Atlanta's downstream neighbors that it understands the dire situation. That solution is conservation.
"Right now is a tough time to talk about reservoirs," says Jill Johnson of the Georgia Conservation Voters, pointing to state and local budget shortfalls. "The time may come when they're an option. But first and foremost, let's take action now for conservation, because it's not as expensive and it has an immediate impact. It's an easy solution."
Under the Gold Dome, where the very mention of "mandates" makes lawmakers wince, passing water-conservation measures such as mandatory retrofits of showerheads or permanent outdoor watering bans hasn't exactly been a popular move.
Part of the reason lies in a lack of political will from Gold Dome leadership — along with strong opposition from industries that rely on the continued growth of metro Atlanta.
In 2004, legislation proposed by Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, to require low-flow plumbing fixtures couldn't even muster a committee hearing after the real estate community voiced concerns. Despite several bipartisan attempts by state lawmakers over the years, the last water-saving legislation to get the Gold Dome leadership's seal of approval was a rather disappointing two-day sales-tax holiday for water-saving fixtures and toilets. And that was during the nail-biting days of Lake Lanier dwindling to record lows.
"It's almost like it's a bad word at the Capitol," Drenner says of water-conservation bills. "These are issues — real-life issues — that other states think are important. Why our leadership chooses to ignore these initiatives is beyond me."
However, the development and real estate industries view mandated water-conservation measures as an intrusion into the free market and a potential drain to profits.
"We support conservation efforts as long as they make economic sense at the same time," says Michael Paris, president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth. "Incentives and rebates — a 'carrot' approach rather than a 'hammer' approach — are going to be more palatable to the industry."
Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, disagrees. "Let's have incentives for people to obey the speed limit. Is that going to stop wrecks and deaths on the highway? No. You need both [incentives and mandates] for the betterment of the entire community," she says.
According to a March 2009 report by the nonprofit environmental advocacy group American Rivers, the region has the ability to access hundreds of millions of additional gallons of water daily — by not letting that water go to waste. Researchers say metro Atlanta could save anywhere from $300 million to $700 million by implementing such water-saving measures as offering rebates on low-flow fixtures, increasing funding to fix leaky pipes and encouraging less drought-intensive landscaping. That could result in water savings of 130 million to as much as 210 million gallons per day, depending on the measures.
That's roughly what metro Atlanta withdraws daily from Lake Lanier — and that's what the region, under the recent court ruling, stands to lose. What’s more, the state’s own estimates find that conservation is 27 times cheaper than building new reservoirs.
Metro Atlanta draws another 270 million gallons daily from the Chattahoochee River, which is fed by Lake Lanier. The region likely will be able to continue to rely on that water source. Another 170 million gallons comes from the region's smaller rivers.
The harsh reality, however, is that the 15-county Atlanta metropolitan area's current water usage — approximately 652 million gallons per day — is expected to increase by 53 percent by 2035, to 1 billion gallons daily. Even with aggressive conservation measures, new water sources will have to be found. And state officials are already looking for shortcuts around the drawn-out and bureaucratic maze it takes to build and fill reservoirs.
Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, who chairs the Senate's Natural Resources and the Environment Committee, recently told the Atlanta Business Chronicle that conservation bills will likely be introduced when lawmakers return to the Gold Dome in January. But to become law, the legislation will need some clout.
"The bottom line is, it doesn't get passed if the [Legislature's] leadership isn't behind it," says Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, one of the minority party's most eco-conscious members. "I think the message would be very powerful if the speaker and lieutenant governor introduce measures like that." (The offices of House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle didn't return requests for comment.)
Judging from a recent public appearance, Perdue doesn't seem too keen on the idea. At a July 23 press conference, CL asked the governor if he intended to introduce serious conservation legislation. He bristled and said the state embraced a "culture of conservation," pointing to the drops in water use during the recent drought — savings that resulted in part because of a mandated ban on outdoor lawn watering.
"If this isn't a wake-up call, then what is?" Johnson, of the Georgia Conservation Voters, says. "We have a three-year deadline. The clock is ticking. Whether this gets resolved in Congress, the courts or the governors sitting down together and coming up with an agreement, at the end of the day, we're still better off if we start implementing aggressive conservation measures. If we want to protect our water and for future generations, we have to do that now."