Water needs will cost hundreds of billions

Atlanta Business Chronicle - by Ryan Mahoney Staff writer

It's not clear yet exactly how Georgia will get the water it needs to serve a population that could double to 18 million over the next 30 years.

But the cost of obtaining that water, using it, treating it and recycling some of it will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, according to Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

On Sept. 10, at the first meeting of a legislative panel that is trying to decide whether to approve Georgia's first-ever statewide water plan in 2008, Couch cautioned lawmakers that securing all that water and paying for it won't be easy.

"We need future water supply," Couch said. "And there is no evident way that it can be gotten without a great deal of conflict within the state."

The first draft of the plan, developed by the EPD with input from state elected and appointed officials, was released June 28. A revised version was due out Sept. 13.

The plan lays the groundwork for the next three years, during which authorities in each of Georgia's 14 major river basins will create their own local plans in the fashion of Atlanta's Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District.

In the meantime, the plan freezes transfers of water from one basin to another -- i.e., to Atlanta from the rest of the state, a practice some say is vital to sustain Atlanta's growth and the source of much of the conflict alluded to by Couch in her comments.

Once authorities for the 14 basins hash out their local plans, work can begin on planning and building the new reservoirs, pipes, water and sewer plants, and other projects, as well as repairing and replacing many existing facilities.

Georgia's households, businesses, farms, industrial facilities and power plants already use an average of 6.5 billion gallons of water a day, according to the EPD. Current residential usage of up to 1.35 billion gallons a day could double to 2.7 billion gallons in the next 30 years due to population growth, with more than half that usage in metro Atlanta.

Local jurisdictions are already pushing more aggressive conservation. But the most optimistic savings from conservation is about 11 percent for the metro water district.

The conventional option for metro Atlanta to add supply is to build more reservoirs. But massive, federally funded projects on the scale of Lake Lanier -- the region's main water source -- are no longer on the drawing boards.

Many future reservoirs may be drained down in time of drought and the interbasin transfer dispute won't be resolved any time soon, says Doug Wilson, executive director of the Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center in Albany. So the only real option for Atlanta is to seek new supplies out of state.

"Atlanta is kidding themselves if they think they can resolve their water issues in a comfortable way with the Band-Aids they're throwing at it," Wilson said. "A pipeline to Tennessee is the only idea that will work."

That idea was echoed by former EPD Director Leonard Ledbetter in a recent publication of the Georgia Association of Water Professionals, an industry group.

"The future water needs of Georgia will require more than just water conservation, especially in high population growth areas," Ledbetter wrote.

"Plans must address hard issues, such as interbasin transfer from the Tennessee River basin, desalinization of seawater and the ensuing transmission system needed to deliver water to areas of need."

Sam Olens, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said very early-stage inquiries have been made about whether Chattanooga might be receptive to trading water for a major expansion of its airport and a high-speed rail connection between that airport and Atlanta's northern suburbs.

"Some access to the Tennessee River would be beneficial for Atlanta," Olens said. "Hopefully this will lead to some meetings with some elected officials in Tennessee."

Likewise, some Savannah-area legislators and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin have suggested the metro could pay for a pipeline of desalinated water from Georgia's coast or a shorter pipeline from the Savannah River in northeast Georgia.

None of that appears anywhere in the EPD plan, however. Couch said both ideas are still far too expensive to consider now and desalination technology is in its infancy.

Instead, she stressed conservation, new reservoirs, and greater water recycling and reuse, as well as a few measures not currently practiced in Georgia, such as using underground aquifers as reservoirs.

Instead, she stressed conservation, new reservoirs, and greater water recycling and reuse, as well as a few measures not currently practiced in Georgia, such as using underground aquifers as reservoirs.

Finding those hundreds of billions of dollars for whatever winds up being built will be tough. With federal funds in short supply, the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority (GEFA) has stepped up its loan program for cities and counties.

But GEFA's current loan capacity is only about $300 million a year, said spokesman Shane Hix, placing much of the burden on local governments.

Cities and counties can only fund so much through revenue bonds, conventional loans and the occasional special-purpose penny sales tax, said David Word, coordinator of the metro water district.

The bottom line, according to Ross King of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, is that water and sewer rates may be in for one heck of an increase.

Georgia's water plan
  • Will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to implement but does not suggest financing options
  • Calls for new reservoirs, water and sewer plants, and more conservation and recycling
  • Does not address long-term options such as piping the Tennessee or Savannah rivers