Civic League’s Water Forum brings conversation to Georgia and Atlanta’s water issues

By Matt McWilliams and Michael Mumper

Publisher’s Note: You can also see AtlCrossroads’  7-minute Video Recap, Photo Gallery and Audio Interviews of the “Water Sustains All” forum by clicking here.

In a critical reversal of a scary 2009 ruling that said Metro Atlanta could not use Lake Lanier for its water supply without congressional approval, the 11th Circuit Court last summer delivered a favorable verdict for metro Atlanta which allows Lanier to be used – in part – to supply Metro Atlanta’s water needs.  This does not mean that litigation is over; nor does it mean that Atlanta’s water woes are now behind it.

Sally Bethea, Bob Kerr and Darrell Thomas, 3 of 8 panelists at the Civic League forum "Water Sustains All"

The Civic League for Regional Atlanta re-visited the region’s water supply issues during a forum in early March, at Atlanta’s Selig Center. The event, Water Sustains All, highlighted that, even with the sun setting on that particular component of metro Atlanta’s water supply, there is still an ongoing need to advance water policy in the region.

Metro Atlanta’s water supply has been susceptible to prolonged droughts, such as in 2007 when officials estimated that the drought had reduced the area’s water to a 3-month supply.

And accounting for population growth over the long-term, metro Atlanta will not have enough water in 20 years based on current consumption patterns. That number projects out to 40 years, if the region adopts new conservation and storage strategies.


There seemed to be consensus among the Water Sustains All panel that last summer’s ruling presents an important opportunity to explore proactive policy solutions to the region’s water supply.

Source: Atlanta Regional Commission

In its ruling, the 11thCircuit Court supported the argument that a key component of Lake Lanier’s original purpose is to provide drinking water to metro Atlanta.   And given that the 15-county Metro Atlanta area gets about 72.6% of its water from the Chattahoochee River (which flows out of Lake Lanier), the ruling was a critical stepping stone to ensuring a large portion of the region’s water supply.

Both Alabama and Florida have challenged that notion over the last 18 years, as both states have struggled to protect their water interests and define water policies to serve their future needs.

“Litigation…has gotten in the way of a discussion that’s more profitable and more meaningful, which is: What is the best way to manage the resources of the Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin?” according to Patricia Barmeyer with King & Spalding, who served as a panelist at the water forum. (See a complete list of forum panelists at the end of this article.)

With the hopes brought about by the concluding litigation, and the ensuing opportunity for discussion, the Civic League convened the panel of water experts to initiate meaningful, public conversation about the future of water in the region and state.



Former Gov. Sonny Perdue and wife Mary during drought prayer vigil (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The drought years of 2006 to 2009 brought metro Atlanta’s water woes to the forefront. In 2007, Gov. Sonny Perdue received national attention by resorting to prayer to help make-up the shortfall.

And while the issue of water supply has become less acute in recent years, as the public’s anxiety relaxes from the threats of drought and litigation, the region still needs to develop comprehensive policies to ensure water supply well into the future.




The region has made progress by adopting more aggressive conservation strategies.  There are various measures that have been undertaken that include modernizing water fee structures, known as conservation pricing, to encourage conservation practices.  Also included are the promotion of low-flow toilets, and more large scale efforts to fix system leaks.

Conservation is an attractive notion, and according to the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s report called Filling the Water Gap, it could have a significant impact enabling Atlanta to maintain adequate water supply.  But it’s not the whole picture. We are cautioned by another panelist at the Water Sustains All forum – Mayor Boyd Austin of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District – who said, “Conservation alone will not provide the water needed for this region for the next 20 years and beyond.”

Thus we turn to an additional strategy for meeting water demand…collaboration among regional stakeholders.


Regional Collaboration

Atlanta has perhaps the most complex web of water supplies, water management systems and legislative bodies in the nation. The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District – created in 2001 by the Georgia General Assembly to serve as a planning agency for Metro Atlanta’s regional water issues – includes 15 different counties, 91 cities and 61 water systems.

Quite a legislative mountain to climb.

Sally Bethea, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

Wilton Rooks, ACF Stakeholders

Are these legislative bodies putting in place comprehensive, effective water policies?  Sally Bethea of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper doesn’t think we’re there yet: “We’re not seeing what we would like to see.”

Another emerging, non-legislative model is represented by ACF Stakeholders, a nonprofit organization that brings together constituents of the critical Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin.  According to Wilton Rooks, an Executive Committee member of this organization, ACF Stakeholders represents “virtually every category of water interest: power supply, city, water, recreation, navigation, water quality, agricultural…every riverkeeper organization, citizen representatives…the full spectrum.

“The idea is to develop a consensus around the data…then we got a better chance of coming to a consensus about what the solutions are.  Otherwise we’re just saying ‘my needs are more important than your needs.’ ”

But it may not be as easy as getting all the players in one room, considering the sometimes inconvenient matter of state lines and the temptation to engage in the politics of water rather than on the policy of water.


Tennessee River

That helps explain Georgia’s recent attempts to renew its tenuous claim to the Tennessee River; a very

Proposed new Georgia Border, in green

strong potential water source for Georgia had it not been for 1818 surveyor error which placed Georgia’s northwestern border too far south to fully take advantage of the Tennessee River’s 24 billion gallons of water flow per day at Nickajack Lake.

Even though there seems to be little possibility of redrawing the border, the abundant waters of the Tennessee River still captivate some Georgia policymakers, who want to take advantage of the river’s occasional dipping into Georgia.  In those areas, interbasin transfers could significantly support Metro Atlanta’s water needs.

Just during the last legislative session, lawmakers introduced a bill seeking to authorize inter-basin transfers from the Tennessee River. The measure failed to survive crossover day, but it could re-emerge considering the complicated nature of water supply in the Southeast, and in spite of built of resistance by Tennessee legislators.

While this is being sorted out, other strategic energies are revolving around building additional reservoirs in Georgia.


Reservoirs and IBT’s

The Flint River, whose headwaters rise just south of Atlanta, is a river in a crisis, according to the river advocacy group American Rivers. The organization ranks the Flint River second on their list of most-endangered rivers.  The organization cites Georgia’s intent to embark on an ambitious reservoir plan as the most serious threat to the health of the river.

While reservoirs can provide high capacities of stored, fresh water, some argue that reservoirs often experience high cost overruns which make less expensive solutions like conservation more attractive, that they destroy large swaths of a basin’s eco-system and agricultural potential, and limit downstream flow for other river constituents.

And health of the Flint River downstream is critically important to southwest Georgia and Florida.  For one, southwest Georgia remains in the prolonged drought that has abated in metro Atlanta, deeply affecting the rich agricultural interests there. Furthermore, the Flint helps feed the upper Floridan Aquifer, which has its own far-reaching water supply issues that stretch from South Carolina to South Florida.

Georgia's 14 river basins

2008 IBT's in Georgia

While Interbasin transfers – or IBT’s, which transfer water from one river basin to another – are also an attractive option for balancing the needs of water interests between basins, their potential harms are not always well understood.  Georgia Water Coalition shares useful information about IBT’s, and makes a case for regulating them, in this November 2010 briefing document.


Interstate Negotiations

Observing the interconnectedness of southeastern states’ water issues is both easy to see and difficult to

Rob McDowell (right), Carl Vinson Institute of Government, UGA

navigate. Rob McDowell of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at UGA remarked that “Economic and population growth – and development – is going to be happening all along the I-85 corridor from Charlotte on down to Birmingham, which means the growth we are having now in metro Atlanta is going to expand into other river basins.”

Rob elaborated on the states in question: “Georgia shares river basins with all five of our surrounding states – granted, the North Carolina portion might be insignificant. But the other states –Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina – are always looking at Georgia to see how we manage our water use.”

This helps explain why all eyes will remain on metro Atlanta for the foreseeable future.

The 11th Circuit Court may have handed Georgia a decisive victory, but it simply clarified one component of the many water supply issues that affect the southeastern United States.

As the population of Metro Atlanta continues to explode, the need for comprehensive policy reform remains, keeping in mind Georgia’s downstream needs.

As Water Sustains All panelist Rob McDowell emphasizes: “Metropolitan Atlanta can never, ever separate itself by choice or otherwise from the issues in south Georgia.”


Matt McWilliams

Michael Mumper


See Matt McWilliams’ and Michael Mumper’s bios are in the About Us section above.




Water Sustains All  Panelists

Boyd Austin, Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District

Patricia Barmeyer, King & Spalding

Rob McDowell, Carl Vinson Institute of Government – UGA

Doug Mundrick, Environmental Protection Agency

Sally Bethea, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper

Bob Kerr, South Fork Conservancy

Wilton Rooks, ACF Stakeholders

Darrell Thomas, IBM

Water Sustains All  Moderator: Sally Sears, News Reporter & South Fork Conservancy director