Moderated by Tom Sabulis
State-built reservoirs can damage environmental habitat through land-clearing, and corrode taxpayers’ trust and pocketbooks. An environmentalist writes that developers and other industries are not held accountable for exploiting water resources. A former state official-turned-lobbyist responds that state and federal regulations are tough enough. He cites the proposed Glades reservoir in Hall County as an example of a reservoir rejected as a development project but re-envisioned as a water-supply resource.
Reservoirs needed for drinking water
By Joe Tanner
Water supply reservoirs are a vital component of Georgia’s management of its precious water resources. Without the current system of reservoirs, millions of Georgians would be without drinking water for extended periods during the summer and fall.
Those who suggest that developers influence decisions as to when and where to build water-supply reservoirs are either not informed or chose to ignore federal and state laws and regulations that govern these important decisions. Permits will not be issued for development amenity reservoirs. Stringent state and federal regulations require irrefutable justifications for water supply needs, complex environmental analyses, alternative sites analyses and, in some cases, environmental impact statements (EIS). Buffers and land use controls around the reservoirs and their tributary streams are also required. Also, future land speculation at public water supply reservoirs can be avoided through strong fiscal management and responsible land acquisition.
The Glades water supply reservoir proposed by Hall County is a great example. About 20 years ago, this lake was proposed as an amenity for a significant proposed development of the surrounding lands. Federal and state agencies responsible for permitting the lake said “no.” The leaders of Hall County envisioned a higher purpose for this proposed reservoir and acquired the site solely for future drinking water supply for the county. Hall County has prepared the permit applications and is funding an EIS being prepared by the Corps of Engineers.
It would be good public policy, when opportunities occur, for some entity or conservation organization to acquire significantly more lands adjacent to water supply projects than current regulations require. Some proposed water supply reservoirs, like the Glades project, are surrounded by important and unique natural resource lands. The combination of the reservoir surrounded by and protected by these special natural resource properties could also provide important opportunities for the present and for future generations to enjoy outdoor recreation, environmental education and other forms of passive recreation.
Any suggestion that electric power companies will benefit from drinking-water supply reservoir building is without foundation. No existing or proposed local government water supply reservoir in Georgia includes power generation. No reservoir has been built by a power company in this state in decades. This is largely because the state’s most economical hydro-generation sites have been developed and natural gas-fueled units are cheaper and quicker to market, and nuclear base-load generation is also playing an increasing role. Hydro power supplies less than 4 percent of the energy needs of this state. Power generation is not driving these regional reservoir projects. Demonstrated drinking-water supply needs are.
Georgia’s drinking water needs will grow as its population increases. Water conservation, optimization of the existing reservoirs, increased use of groundwater, increased use of highly treated waste water and construction of a few well-planned water supply reservoirs are necessary to meet these increased needs.
Joe Tanner is former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
A bonanza for speculators?
By David Kyler
There’s a troubling tendency for water projects to be exploited for opportunistic land speculation and development schemes.
Reservoirs are promoted as solutions for ensuring water supply needed to sustain Georgia’s growing population. Meanwhile major water users – and wasters – are not being held accountable.
Local ordinances may require low-flow toilets and showers in new homes, yet power companies are allowed to literally vaporize hundreds of millions of gallons of water daily, taken from Georgia’s rivers to cool high-temperature generators at coal and nuclear plants.
Available new technologies for water-efficient cooling and power production are neglected, as if they don’t exist. Despite Georgia’s adopting a water conservation program several years ago, there are no requirements for the power industry to take steps to conserve.
In fact, power plants use so much water it’s estimated that many Georgians, unknowingly, may use more water at home burning electricity than by drinking, bathing, washing clothes and watering their lawns.
Water squandered is not only a lost opportunity to meet demand of a growing population at comparatively low cost, but it can be a train-wreck for the environment. It is a travesty for both nature and taxpayers when reservoirs are built to increase water supply while enormous amounts of water are being wasted.
Clearing land to build reservoirs may remove hundreds of acres of native forests, causing both temporary and long-term erosion (thus degrading water quality and fish habitat). And it can permanently reduce the flow of rivers downstream from reservoirs by increasing evaporation losses. Intensive development around these water bodies causes still more loss of native vegetation, wildlife habitat and water quality.
Yet, man-made lakes – reservoirs by another name – have become great sources of private profit-making. Land previously valued at less than $10,000 an acre may be worth 10 or 20 times that much once a body of water is made available nearby.
Those who have influence over decisions about when and where to build reservoirs are in a position to gain huge financial payouts. When public funds are used to finance reservoirs – helped by a bill passed in last year’s General Assembly – enormous profits can be grabbed by a few private investors while ordinary taxpayers unwittingly foot the bill.
Land speculation has a recurring yet curiously overlooked downside. As land surrounding reservoirs is subdivided and sold for quick profits, a given piece of property may change hands many times before it’s occupied, ramping up demand and prices until the market eventually collapses. Speculators holding land when the collapse occurs, as well as the banks that made loans to them, can suffer huge financial losses.
Unfortunately, such penalties spread throughout the local and regional economy, harming many who never had anything to do with real-estate deals.
Largely as a result of policies that unwisely encourage development speculation, Georgia in recent years has had more bank failures than any other state, and often leads the nation in property foreclosures.
It is no coincidence that Georgians are ranked the least financially secure of all U.S. citizens. Reckless policies supporting speculation and irresponsible use of natural resources deprive Georgians of greater control over their communities and their own income sources.
What this amounts to is subsidizing dicey business practices and unjustified exploitation — whether water-intensive power production or over-leveraged land deals — at the public’s expense.
Worse yet, those who benefit the most from such practices may have their financial risks greatly reduced by taxpayer bailouts of one kind or another.
The true consequences of these policies are seldom evaluated, either before or after the ill-considered legislation creating them is passed. In the absence of transparency and accountability, the cycle repeats itself.
If Georgia is to safeguard the interests of all citizens, unfair provisions benefitting the privileged few, whatever the pretext, must be eliminated.
David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast in Saint Simons.