Asked about the water-war summit scheduled for today with his counterparts in Alabama and Florida, Gov. Sonny Perdue tried to lower expectations.
“I would hope that we [governors] have a group hug and come out of that meeting with an agreement,” Perdue said last week. But those seemingly optimistic words were undercut by his “I’m-pulling-your-leg” smile, suggesting that a deal was only slightly less likely than the highly implausible group hug.
Nonetheless, the fact that a meeting is taking place at all is progress.
Presumably, the meeting was scheduled because exploratory discussions among lawyers and staff for Perdue, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley found enough common ground to believe it would be productive.
Last week’s meeting of Georgia’s Water Contingency Task Force also produced grounds for encouragement, although you had to look a little hard to find it.
The task force — dominated by state business leaders — was appointed by Perdue to recommend ways to respond to U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson. Last summer, Magnuson told Georgia that unless it reaches a water-sharing agreement with Alabama and Florida by July 2012, metro Atlanta will lose access to hundreds of millions of gallons a day from Lake Lanier.
After studying the challenge, the task force has concluded that the state has no means to meet that deadline. Although aggressive water-conservation measures can make a contribution, nothing the state can do by 2012 can replace Lake Lanier.
By 2015, Lake Lanier could be replaced as a water source only by an aggressive, highly expensive and environmentally risky set of measures that would be difficult at best to implement.
And by 2020, aggressive water conservation, reservoir expansions and a major leak-repair program could together close the gap between water supply and demand without Lake Lanier.
Grim as it sounds, that’s actually a road map to a solution. When Magnuson set his 2012 deadline, he did so to create a sense of crisis among Georgia leaders. He clearly succeeded.
But the reality is that come 2012, no judge is going to leave hundreds of thousands of Georgians high and dry, without access to water, while Lake Lanier sits a few miles away. That’s just not going to happen, especially if the state can show that it has acted in good will to address the problem. So the tough conservation measures likely to be recommended by the task force will have to be implemented as soon as possible by the Legislature.
As Perdue acknowledged last week, the task-force findings have also mapped out the limits of what is possible, which could prove useful in his negotiations with Alabama and Florida.
“We want to be fair and share with our neighbors,” Perdue said Friday, “but there are physical limits to what we can do.”
So let’s review:
It is impossible for metro Atlanta to replace Lake Lanier as a water source by 2012, which means that federal judges will have to make accommodations.
The more aggressively Georgia moves toward conservation and reuse between now and 2012, the more sympathy it is likely get from the judiciary.
The mind-set of Georgia’s leadership has changed significantly. As Perdue said last week, “Conservation shouldn’t be a word of sacrifice, but a word of honor.”
Given all that, here’s the outline of a possible settlement:
Metro Atlanta gets limited access to Lake Lanier, perhaps by capping future withdrawals at 2008 or 2006 levels. That would ease the metro region’s challenge while also addressing concerns of Florida, Alabama and even downstream Georgians that a booming metro region will eventually suck the Southeast dry.
It would also mean that water to supply any future growth in metro Atlanta would have to be “produced” through conservation and wise use. The task force’s report shows us how.