Southern states need to supplement federal reservoirs
Published: Saturday, November 3rd, 2007
Did you ever think a time would come when people in this country’s Southeast would be praying for a few more hurricanes? Unfortunately, the normally soggy Southeast is suffering from a very real two-year rainwater drought that could threaten drinking water supplies for metropolitan Atlanta and other cities, and has stirred up a political battle that might have to be settled in Washington, D.C. To be sure, while facing the driest two years on record since 1894, most southern states and cities, which had been accustomed to dealing with too much rain in the summer rather than too little, are only now scrambling to come up with water conservation plans. But the threat to drinking water has been intensified by federal government decisions that bureaucrats in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have so far been unwilling to correct. The problem is symbolized by Lake Lanier, a 38,000-acres artificial lake north of Atlanta created in 1956 by damming the Chattahoochee River. The Army Corps of Engineers controls how much water is released downstream. Its decisions are mandated in part by conservation laws calling for releasing enough water to protect an endangered sturgeon and two species of mussel in the Apalachicola River and bay in Florida. Three weekends ago the Corps increased the flow from Lanier even though the lake is now 12 feet below its normal level. Lake Lanier provides water for most of greater Atlanta’s 5 million residents. Authorities believe it could dry up — not completely but so as to be useless as reliable water supply — in two to four months. Georgia officials are upset over the Corps decisions. (They note that last year the Corps revealed that a gauge was incorrectly calibrated, yielding a lake level about two feet higher than it really was. Because of this mistake, nearly 22 billion gallons over and above the planned releases had been released even as the drought was building.) Georgia officials are calling on the Corps of Engineers to reduce the amount of water released from Lake Lanier. But federal law decrees that water from a federal dam project belongs equally to all the states in the watershed, so Alabama and Florida argue for maintaining current flows. Alabama Gov. Robert Riley notes that a nuclear plant in east Alabama might have to shut down or cut back on production if it doesn’t get enough water for cooling. We appreciate the difficulty of balancing all these interests, but it strikes us that water for people is more important than water for mussels. The argument that Lake Lanier is an artificial rather than a natural lake, and that the excess water it provides for endangered mussels would simply not be available if the dam containing it had never been built, is also rather compelling. Georgia has now limited outdoor watering to three days a week and some cities have imposed even tighter restrictions. Alabama and Florida have similar restrictions in place. Governors of the three states are scheduled to meet today in Washington to hash out a compromise. But conservation alone won’t handle the problem. In the short run, putting the priorities of people ahead of those of mussels seems sensible. Over the longer haul, all the southeastern states would do well to consider developing state, local and private reservoir systems to supplement the federal reservoirs.
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