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Posted: July 20, 2010 11:09 p.m.

Opportunity trickling away

One year ago, a federal judge from Minnesota named Paul Magnuson signed his name to a 97-page court order that was part of the ongoing water wars involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

The ink that flowed from the judge's pen to the final page of the ruling could have a profound effect on the water that flows through Georgia, and how it is used, for years to come.

Magnuson declared that most of Metro Atlanta had no legal authority to withdraw drinking water from Lake Lanier. Unless Congress approved reauthorization, the judge said, access to the federal reservoir would be cut off in 2012.

The judge's ruling was a devastating blow to Metro Atlanta politicians and developers, who for years had acted on the assumption that they would always be able to tap Lanier to supply the region's water.

If the cutoff of Lanier water is actually implemented, the impact would be felt all over Georgia as Metro Atlanta legislators battle with their counterparts outside the region over the transfer of water from such sources as the Savannah, Coosa, and Flint river basins.
One year after Magnuson's landmark ruling, with only two years to go before the cutoff deadline, the governors of the three states appear to be no closer to reaching a negotiated agreement on the allocation of water from Lanier.

Gov. Sonny Perdue's primary response to the ruling has been to fight it every step of the way through protracted litigation and court appeals.

That's an expensive approach, because Attorney General Thurbert Baker has farmed out the legal work involved to high-priced private attorneys rather than have it handled by in-house lawyers. The most recent available figure is that the state has spent at least $6.91 million on outside legal fees associated with the water litigation.

"A year has passed since the Magnuson decision and Georgia, which is to say the Metro Atlanta growth industry, which controls the state, still cannot accept the fact that they are losing in court," environmental lobbyist Neill Herring said.

Perdue argues that there is "reason for optimism" about the state's future supply of water, despite the lack of success in negotiations over the past 12 months.

"Beginning long before the ruling last year, Georgia has worked hard to develop and implement effective water planning efforts," Perdue wrote in an op-ed column last week. "We have focused on encouraging a culture of conservation in Georgia and our citizens have responded to that call."

There has been some progress in the area of more efficient use of our current resources. Perdue proposed and the General Assembly passed SB 370, which requires the installation of water-efficient plumbing fixtures in newly constructed buildings beginning in 2012 and puts restrictions on outdoor watering.

Environmentalists have called the bill a good first step in the drive to conserve water, although they estimate it will only achieve 10 percent of the savings that will be needed by 2020.

There do not appear to have been any meetings of the three governors to discuss the water issue in recent months, although that's difficult to know for sure because the negotiations have been conducted secretly.

The governors involved are all lame ducks whose terms end in December. For all practical purposes, time is running out on the possibility that they might reach a workable agreement before they leave office.

I once thought that the issue of water, which may be the most crucial question facing Georgia in the next five to 10 years, would be one of the dominant topics in the race for governor.

I was wrong. In the closing days of the primary campaigns, all the fussing and fighting has been about the candidates' reputed positions on gay adoption, benefits for gay couples, and an organization of gay political activists known as Log Cabin Republicans.
What does all this argument about gay issues have to do with ensuring that Georgians continue to have enough water to drink? Not a thing.

"Unless we change course soon, we will be left high and dry in 2012," said Sally Bethea, director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization. "We do have the tools to end this war . . . if only the political resolve to end it will emerge."

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@gareport.com.

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