Water war is not over

Water war is not over

July 5th, 2011 in Opinion Times

'Be afraid, be very afraid.'

Those words, enshrined in popular culture after they were uttered in "The Fly," the 1986 cult movie, are especially appropriate today for Tennessee officials in the wake of an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last week. The decision restores Atlanta's access to water from Lake Lanier. Atlanta and Georgia leaders hailed the victory, but even the most myopic of them has to know deep down that the court's ruling - if it stands - isn't a remedy to Atlanta's water woes.

That's why Gov. Bill Haslam and other Tennessee officials should be wary.

Atlanta and Georgia still must address the city's chronic water shortage. Tapping Lake Lanier might provide relief for a metro area with 3 million residents for a while, but its resources are not inexhaustible. A sustainable and sound approach to water conservation and management is necessary. Georgia has proved to be reluctant to pursue such policies over the years.

There's nothing to indicate that will change - especially in the wake of the new ruling. There seems to be a general sense that access to the lake will solve the problem. Not so. It simply postpones the time of reckoning.

That day is sure to come. It might arrive following a successful appeal of last week's ruling. The case involved Georgia's long-running battle with Florida and Alabama over how much water the Atlanta area can remove from a watershed that also serves those states. Neither state is likely to give up its claims to the Chattahoochee River without additional judicial involvement. Alabama officials, in fact, already have said an appeal is forthcoming. Florida likely will follow suit.

Even if the ruling stands on appeal, there's no guarantee that Atlanta will have access to the water it will need. Continued growth in the region likely eventually will outstrip the available supply of water in Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. That's why Tennessee officials should be wary.

Sooner or later, Georgia officials again will look northward for more water. In the past, they've focused on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga. That won't change. It remains the closest and most abundant source of water in the region.

Georgia officials have made no secret of their desire to tap the Tennessee. They first argued that an incorrectly drawn border deprived Georgia of its rightful access to the water. When that failed to cow Tennessee officials, they threatened other actions. Tennessee officials never caved, and Georgia officials publicly abandoned the effort to tap the Tennessee. Privately, they still covet its bounty.

A spokesman for David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, speaker of the Georgia House, said last week that Ralston remains interested "in exploring ideas for strategic partnerships with Tennessee." That's political double-talk for "we still want your water. All we have to do is figure out a way to get it."

Gov. Haslam should firmly reject any Georgia overture about access to the Tennessee River. The answer to Atlanta's and Georgia's water woes is not available in Tennessee. It can be found in Georgia, but only if officials there work diligently to develop long-range, environmentally sound water conservation, management and reservoir plans. So far, they've not done so.