Atlanta is thirsty. And apparently it's looking at the CSRA. Again.
Gov. Sonny Perdue's Water Contingency Task Force has released a report that, among other things, floated ideas on how metro Atlanta could supplement its water supply. The 80-member panel - heavy on businessmen but light on actual scientists - laid out several options, including the absolute worst option for the Augusta area: pumping water out of the Savannah River Basin.
It's called an "interbasin transfer," the bulk movement of water from point A to point B. It would suck water out of the Savannah River area and leave behind many environmental problems, particularly with aquatic ecosystems.
Senate Bill 130, passed in 2001, prohibits metro Atlanta's water planning district from pursuing interbasin transfers from outside its boundaries. And one of the key planning assumptions from metro Atlanta's water management plan in September 2003 sounds abundantly clear: "Interbasin water transfers from outside the District would neither be studied nor included in any District plan."
But that was then. Now, Atlanta has to cope with a federal judge's ruling last summer that found it illegal for the metro area to draw water from Lake Lanier because it was built for hydropower and not as a water supply. The order: Stop taking water from Lanier within three years, or get Congress to give permission to take it.
Now, it looks like officials are examining angles to circumvent the intent of Senate Bill 130.
Almost two years ago, when the state was in the throes of a bad drought, the General Assembly passed a statewide water management plan that sorely lacked enough reasoned input from environmentalists and other experts. As a result, the plan has a loophole you can drive a truck through - or, in this case, pump a river through.
In theory, the Atlanta area can't take Savannah River water. Realistically, however, it still could.
Actually, it already is.
State regulations define water in such a way that, as long as the water is treated, it can be sold and transferred from one basin to another. So Toccoa, which draws water from the Savannah River Basin, treats that water and sells it to Habersham County, which releases its treated wastewater into the Chattahoochee River - and it flows right down to Atlanta.
The daily amount is 1 million gallons - relatively small. But Frank Carl, former executive director of the environmental advocacy group Savannah Riverkeeper, correctly pointed out earlier this year that it's the precedent that's the problem.
Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Perdue, hastens to point out that the task force's report last week should not be considered a plan. It's merely a presentation of all the available options.
But poaching water from the Savannah River shouldn't be an option. The CSRA shouldn't have to quench Atlanta's thirst at the expense of depriving our vibrant riverside industry of its water. If river flow goes down, productivity goes down with it. And on the river's three lakes, how attractive would recreation be if the lake levels dropped?
The governor's task force found that interbasin transfers would be very expensive. But that's hardly an assurance that such transfers won't happen. When was the last time you heard of a government that had serious reservations about spending money?
Want to spend money more cost-effectively? Vigorously promote conservation. Expand reservoirs. Build new lakes. Sink more groundwater wells. All of those options would be less expensive than assembling a network of pipes and pumping stations to take water out of the Savannah.
Water is this river city's lifeblood, and it must be protected.