By now, you know about the federal judge’s ruling that metro Atlanta has no right to draw drinking water from Lake Lanier — and never has.
The giant economic engine of metro Atlanta, the centerpiece of the South’s magical, post-World War II transformation, has been founded on a poor legal assumption, Judge Paul Magnuson ruled.
If this half-century oversight isn’t fixed within another three years, the judge intends to shut off the flow of Lanier water to millions of faucets and toilets in metro Atlanta.
It should be noted that Magnuson came to this draconian conclusion — his words — in far-off Minnesota, the land of precisely 11,842 natural freshwater lakes. Georgia’s natural lakes can be counted by touching thumb to forefinger: zilch.
We are, in many ways, a green desert. In this state, lakes are man-made, created for specific purposes by the people who pay for them. In the case of Buford Dam, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the purposes authorized by Congress were navigation, power generation and flood control.
The water behind Buford Dam was not collected so that you could do the laundry, the judge said. Not for dishwashers, bathtubs, lawn sprinklers, wading pools, dog dishes, cooking pots or iced tea. Not for the creation of Diet Cokes or beer or concrete.
The ruling was a stunning turn in a lethargic, 19-year fight between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over the water that runs through the Chattahoochee. In one blow, the judge robbed Georgia of both legal footing and time.
Several reactions are worth noting. State Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) said the state could regain leverage in water negotiations by moving the annual Georgia-Florida football game out of Jacksonville and into Georgia every other year.
U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of east Georgia, in a sublime display of solidarity, declared that an evil, thirsty metro Atlanta shouldn’t even think of slipping a straw into the Oconee or Savannah rivers.
Business leaders churned out their own metaphors. Failure to solve this thing, said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, “would perhaps have a Katrina-sized effect on the metro economy.”
We will all be up on our roofs, holding signs for helicopters and CNN cameras: “No shower for three days,” or “Save us. Plenty of bourbon. No ice.”
Don’t laugh. Williams may have put his finger somewhere close to a solution.
In a basement ballroom in the Governor’s Mansion, Sonny Perdue last week gave a private PowerPoint presentation on Georgia’s legal predicament to 130 “stakeholders” — the corporate heads, developers, lobbyists, and political leaders invested in Georgia’s continued growth.
No, the lead lawyers had yet to be identified, Perdue said in response to a question from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Yes, it might be time to back statewide incentives for water-saving toilets and such, the governor said.
Bright spots were pointed out: The judge’s decision could actually undercut Florida, which has based its case for water on the health of mollusks and sturgeon protected by endangered species legislation. Not navigation, power generation, or flood control.
Thirsty mollusks may have no more right to Lake Lanier water than thirsty humans.
To these stakeholders, to reporters outside, and in a telephone conference call with Georgia’s congressional delegation later that afternoon, Perdue insisted that it was fruitless to think he might reach an agreement with his fellow Republican governors in Alabama and Florida.
All three will be out the door in 2010. Charlie Crist of Florida is particularly disengaged — he’s in a race for the U.S. Senate.
Perdue has called for the battle to be carried to Congress, another arena where Georgia might feel outnumbered. But Perdue’s solution is to escalate the fight— to find other states that consider themselves under the thumb of an unresponsive Corps of Engineers, and form a confederation of the thirsty.
Publicly, members of Congress from Georgia are in a disciplined, bipartisan phalanx of agreement. “I personally very much like that idea,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, the DeKalb County Democrat.
But privately, congressmen — even Republicans — are more skeptical about their ability to forge a solution acceptable to Congress that hasn’t already been ratified by the three states.
Time is an issue, too. Democrat John Lewis is expected to take the lead, but the congressman most experienced on water issues, Nathan Deal, is leaving to make a Republican run for governor.
The brightest spot in the judge’s ruling, one congressional source said, may be the deadline: July 2012.
Barack Obama will be in the midst of his re-election campaign. Which brings us back to Katrina— or rather, our anti-Katrina in the making.
Obama won’t want to antagonize Florida and its electoral votes. But neither will he want an economic catastrophe — the sight of metro Atlanta’s drying husk — on TV, day after day.
Republican presidential candidates won’t want to choose among Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, either. Florida’s primary is first, followed by the two others a week later. Better if water is off the table by then.
Gordian knots often require major events to slice through them. And a 2012 presidential contest may be the real confederation of the thirsty that Georgia needs.
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