Depending on which news outlets you follow, North Georgia and a large swath of the southeastern United States are in the throes of a drought that is “exceptional” (the official National Weather Service terminology for it), “unprecedented,” “historic,” or “epic.” All of these adjectives are fitting.
Meanwhile, every day the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases more than three billion – with a “b” – gallons of water from Lake Lanier, a major water source for Metro Atlanta. Lake Lanier is now fifteen feet below its full level. That level continues to drop.
The water is sent downstream on the Chattahoochee River to cool a nuclear power plant in Alabama, support Florida’s oyster industry where the Apalachicola River (into which the Chattahoochee flows) meets the Gulf of Mexico, and sustain mussels and sturgeon that are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, among other purposes.
Lake Lanier is a man-made lake, created by damming and flooding a portion of the Chattahoochee River. If it didn’t exist, and Buford Dam wasn’t in place to regulate the flow of water from Lake Lanier into the Chattahoochee, we’d all be bearing the brunt of the drought in proportions determined by nature: Metro Atlanta, Alabama, Florida, mussels, and sturgeon alike. Instead, the water releases by the Corps of Engineers ensure that all downstream interests have the water they need, while Metro Atlanta stares down an impending crisis on its own.
Legal wrangling and bureaucratic cajoling are underway to decrease the rate of water releases from Lake Lanier. It’s another chapter in the ongoing “water wars” between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida that date back to at least 1990. Unfortunately, once this latest chapter of the water wars is written, there is no guarantee that Metro Atlanta will live happily ever after. The decisions that need to be made are in the hands of various federal agencies and a federal court sitting in Jacksonville, Florida.
We need solutions over which Georgia has greater control. A solution that is gaining steam for the 2008 legislative session, which begins in January, is appropriating substantial funds for the construction of new reservoirs to collect and impound additional water. This appropriation likely will be coupled with legislation to streamline the state process for approving construction of new reservoirs. Currently, that process can take approximately eight to ten years.
Local governments like DeKalb County urgently need to implement those solutions over which they exercise control. Enforcing water use restrictions is a good start.
DeKalb may want to rethink its addiction to ultra high-density development projects, which isn’t helping the water crisis. Alternatively, impact fees should be imposed on the developers who are seeking to build thousands upon thousands of new condominiums and apartments in DeKalb County. Among other water-saving uses, these impact fees could be utilized to repair leaks that plague the water system which serves our county. Impact fees already are authorized under state law. DeKalb has yet to implement them, despite past promises that the county would do so.
Believe it or not, there are some homes in our DeKalb County neighborhoods that still operate on septic tanks. A few homes in Pine Hills, in Dunwoody Forest, on Harts Mills Road, on Dunwoody Lane, which is near Montgomery Elementary, and on Berkeley Lane, which is in Toco Hills, are examples. The county should connect such homes to the sewer system as soon as possible, to ensure that treated wastewater ultimately is returned to the waterways from which it came. DeKalb has a lower percentage of homes on septic systems than most other counties, but reducing this number to zero is a worthwhile endeavor under present dire circumstances.
A version of this post was published in the November 7 edition of the Dunwoody Crier.