published Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Georgia water supply task force looks to reservoirs

DORIE TURNER, Associated Press

ATLANTA — Members of a statewide task force said Wednesday they want to offer low-interest state loans to build new reservoirs and wells in hopes of increasing Georgia's water supply, which has been threatened by long-running disputes with neighboring Alabama and Florida.

The recommendations from Gov. Nathan Deal's task force were made public for the first time as the state fights to maintain access to reservoirs in its borders. Alabama and Florida maintain Georgia uses too much water from Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona, leaving too little for communities and wildlife downstream.

The state's task force wants to spend $300 million that Deal has promised to expand water supply by building multi-million reservoirs, reopening inactive wells or drilling new wells. The state should offer loans to cities and towns for such projects, the task force said.

"We view this program as a compliment to the conservation efforts that are already in place," task force chairman Kevin Clark said.

The plan is available for public comment until Dec. 7.

But critics of the state's plan say existing water systems should be made more efficient first before the state puts money into building new reservoirs. The task force's plan does not call for any money to be spent on conservation efforts.

"That's a grave mistake because that's where we can get the most bang for our dollar," said Joe Cook, executive director and riverkeeper at the Coosa River Basin Initiative.

A federal court ruling put Georgia in danger of having access to Lanier severely restricted, but a federal appeals court overturned that decision in June. There are other legal challenges to the state's water usage, but the largest legal battle focuses on Lake Lanier, the main water supply for more than 3 million metro Atlanta residents.

Water from Lake Lanier flows along Alabama and into Florida.

Deal has said Georgia needs to show good faith by doing what it can to expand its water supply.

The task force recommended that potential watershed projects be scored on multiple criteria: need, finances, timeliness and local support. The recommendations come from multiple meetings held from March to September, including input from the public.

The state's newest reservoir — Hickory Log Creek Reservoir in Canton — took years to finish and ran $75 million over original budget estimates. It holds nearly 6 billion gallons of backup water.

Skeptics are concerned that reservoirs cost millions of dollars in planning and consulting fees — and that's before any groundbreaking. Experts say the projects can take anywhere from eight to 15 years to finish.

Georgia already has about 90 reservoirs used for drinking water, according to the state Environmental Protection Division. Three reservoirs are being built or have not yet been used.

Nine more projects are under review. Permits are needed from both the state government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it's unclear when they would be approved.

Legal challenges also could hamper reservoir projects. In 2007, Alabama filed a fresh legal complaint asking a federal judge to reopen the permits for the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir, arguing it would hurt that state's access to water. That case is still pending.

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