Georgia’s ongoing water crisis defies an easy solution, or even an easy explanation.
So when you listen to candidates for governor discuss the issue, you’re not hoping to hear a solution to a complex problem, because there aren’t any. At best, you hope to hear evidence that the candidates have educated themselves on the issue and have thought it through intelligently.
For example, consider the positions of the top four GOP gubernatorial candidates.
Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, the front-runner at the moment, brings up Georgia’s claims that if drawn accurately, the border between Tennessee and Georgia would give us water rights to the Tennessee River. As governor, Oxendine says, he would raise that issue in talks with Tennessee.
That’s an easy answer with obvious political appeal. It’s also pretty foolish. Tennessee officials have made it clear they will fight any effort to redraw the centuries-old boundary. Given that we’re already embroiled in a losing political and legal battle with Alabama and Florida, opening a third front with our northern neighbor would be futile and probably counterproductive.
Oxendine’s penchant for the popular over the practical is also on display on his campaign Web site. To address our water problems, it states, “John will take on a federal government — an impersonal, far-away monstrosity that cares more about Florida mussels than our Georgia citizens.”
Again, the idea of taking on the feds may appeal to some in Oxendine’s base, but historically, it hasn’t been a winning strategy for Georgia. In addition, Washington isn’t the real villain. To the contrary, the support of the federal government is probably the best hope we have of forcing a reasonable outcome to our disagreement with Florida and Alabama.
One of the most difficult issues confronting state policymakers is the role of interbasin transfers. While it would be relatively easy for metro Atlanta to ease its water-supply problems by tapping into watersheds outside its boundaries, that approach has understandably alarmed other parts of the state. They fear that to fuel its growth, metro Atlanta will use its political power to seize water supplies and leave downstream communities and ecosystems high and dry.
Karen Handel, the former secretary of state, says she opposes interbasin transfers as a bad idea, a position that is seemingly designed to strengthen her hand with Republican voters outside the metro area.
But two other GOP candidates, former state Sen. Eric Johnson and U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, took a more balanced approach at a recent candidates’ forum sponsored by the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Interbasin transfers must be used sparingly, Johnson said, “but to say that absolutely never will we have interbasin transfers is not a good way to approach this.”
“That doesn’t mean I want Atlanta sticking a straw in the Savannah River,” Johnson said, noting that he himself comes from Savannah. “But to say you will never have interbasin transfers is to lock metro Atlanta into a potentially crisis situation.”
Former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, from Gainesville, echoed that.
“There will be interbasin transfers,” Deal told the chamber. “I think the important thing is that you have minimized it” and “not to make it a predominant source of water.”
The approach taken by Deal and Johnson is fair and practical. Metro Atlanta cannot take water that others need; it has to do everything it can, through planning and conservation, to live within its own water resources. But the worst-case scenarios for the metro region are too dire to simply rule out water transfers as a tool for dealing with a crisis.