Wild 2010 race will be wet, too

Too much water makes for ruined basements and canceled baseball games. Too little of it might set the stage for good politics in next year’s gubernatorial race.

A federal judge’s ruling this month will leave much of metro Atlanta dry three years from now if we can’t reach an agreement with Alabama and Florida on how to use Lake Lanier’s water.

Without a new deal, Georgia’s take from the lake will revert to what it was in the 1970s, when Atlanta was much smaller than it is now.

The prospects for a negotiated settlement appear grim. The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson throws the issue to Congress, where Georgia has 15 members compared with 36 from Florida and Alabama combined. Getting the rest of Congress to sign on to an equitable plan will be a tall task for our delegation.

The three states’ governors are all Republicans, but that hasn’t yet yielded a settlement. This isn’t a partisan issue.

And the likelihood that Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue can strike a deal with the other governors now, after the judge’s order has removed any leverage he might have had, is about as low as Lanier was during the recent drought. All three states will have new governors after the 2010 elections, and neither the current office holders nor their successors in Alabama and Florida will be inclined to give Georgia an inch. Relying too heavily on a deal would be a mistake.

All of which means Georgia voters, and particularly those in metro Atlanta, will be looking for answers from the numerous candidates vying to replace Perdue.

We are 51 weeks away from the party primaries. Campaigns are still fleshing out their agendas.

Of the 10 declared candidates, six Republicans and four Democrats, only three list a detailed policy agenda on a campaign Web site. Just two of the three mention water.

This far out, policy detail can be mostly a function of how long a candidate’s been in the race, as well as political strategy. So I don’t put too much stock at this point in how much detail one campaign has versus another. In any case, no campaign has explained the crucial matter of how to pay for its ideas.

What I will say is that the proposals out there so far include new reservoirs, conservation efforts and investing in technologies still in their infancy, such as water reuse and desalination.

Cost will be key, since state revenues will probably still be smarting from the recession when the next governor takes office. Immediacy, too: More reservoirs would be nice to have right about now, but any new governor will be hard-pressed to get a new series of dams approved by environmental authorities, planned, funded and built before another drought strikes. We’ll need additional options.

More important for the way the gubernatorial race takes shape, water is one more issue that will be perceived by many people across the state as an “Atlanta problem” rather than a “Georgia problem.” The other is, of course, transportation.

But neither of those issues is about only Atlanta and its future. And solving both will require, at the very least, the blessing of the governor and the Legislature.

Making that case to voters well beyond I-285 will be difficult, no doubt. Atlanta is certainly an economic engine for the rest of Georgia, but an Atlanta-centric campaign may be problematic in a state where the rural vote still often acts as the tiebreaker.

Good thing the candidates have 51 weeks to hone their message. They’ll need every hour.

Note to readers: Kyle Wingfield will begin blogging daily in August. Commenting on this blog will open then.

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