Look, let’s be honest.
Georgia’s ongoing battle with neighboring Alabama and, to a lesser degree, with Florida, isn’t really about the appropriate use of shared water resources.
It’s about prosperity: We’ve got it, they want it, and by restricting our water supply, they hope to divert some of that prosperity in their direction.
Alabama officials in particular seem to be enthralled by that theory, which is probably why Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley are at such loggerheads. What Perdue can’t say but probably believes is that Riley’s goal is not to protect Alabama but to harm metro Atlanta. The difference between those two motives explains why negotiations have been fruitless so far.
If you look at the water consumption numbers, Alabama’s interests are not harmed by the amount of water consumed by metro Atlanta, and Riley cannot seriously make the argument that it is. Even in drought years, the amount of water consumed by metro Atlanta has little impact on the amount of water available downstream for use by Alabama.
Even if we were to resume growth at the pace of the ’90s without implementing serious water conservation efforts — both highly unlikely scenarios — it would in no way endanger Alabama’s water resources.
Unfortunately, Alabama is not alone in the misperception that prosperity is a zero-sum game, that what Atlanta loses they are likely to gain. Some of our fellow Georgians believe the same thing. A recent editorial in the Savannah Morning News, for example, argued that “in light of a federal judge’s ruling on Atlanta’s water, state leaders should spread economic development efforts to other parts of Georgia” where water is readily available.
While acknowledging Atlanta’s growth, the editorial argues that “the city’s very success, while parts of southeast and central Georgia languish, is its own argument for ending the state’s Atlanta-centric development efforts, and shifting growth to areas of the state that can support it.”
First, the notion that state economic development efforts are somehow “Atlanta-centric” has no basis. To the contrary, the state spends disproportionately more money and effort trying to woo business to other parts of Georgia, and for good reason. Those regions are simply a tougher sell to companies looking to relocate or expand.
Second, the companies and the people that come to metro Atlanta aren’t directed here by government. They come because they seek the benefits and amenities of a major metropolitan area. They could locate to other areas of Georgia, areas with less traffic, cheaper housing and cleaner air, but they come here because they need the skilled work force, the schools and universities, the restaurants, the cultural activities and the world-class airport offered by metro Atlanta.
In other words, growth redirected from metro Atlanta by a shortage of water would not go to Alabama or Savannah. It would shift instead to Charlotte, Dallas, Chicago or Denver, metro competitors that offer an environment similar to that of Atlanta. In most cases, those shifts would cost the Southeast the secondary financial and employment benefits created by a thriving Atlanta.
In any such discussion, it’s important to acknowledge that metro Atlanta is not blameless. Should the region have been more aggressive in water conservation efforts? Of course. It also should have moved more quickly to fix water-quality problems that for decades truly did harm downstream neighbors, costing us trust we could sorely use.
It’s also true that Georgia has badly misplayed what was already a weak poker hand. The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson merely confirmed what many in Georgia quietly knew: Alabama and Florida’s legal case — dependent on a strict reading of the law — has always been stronger than the case they could offer on practical or scientific grounds.
For that reason, allowing the battle to be confined to the courtroom never made sense, and now we’re paying the price.