Deal’s administration earlier announced it would consider investing state money into projects that give Georgia’s government the ability to augment flows in drought-parched waterways. One potential project is the proposed Glades Reservoir in Hall County, whose local government has requested nearly $14.6 million in state funding. That’s a small part of the estimated $130 million project cost. A formal decision is due next month.
Since taking office, Deal has advocated for building reservoirs and other water storage projects to increase the water supply in Georgia, which has long fought with neighboring Alabama and Florida over regional water rights. The neighboring states accuse metro Atlanta of using too much water, leaving too little for downstream communities, businesses and wildlife.
In the latest development, Florida has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to divide up water rights in the basin formed by the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers. That river system is shared by all three states.
Under Georgia’s plan, the state government would partner with local communities seeking to build reservoirs for their own needs. Officials in Deal’s administration said it makes sense to build reservoirs large enough to meet both local needs and larger state goals.
“We’re only going to build so many of these,” said Judson Turner, director of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. “They are expensive. There are only so many sites that make sense.”
Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, said the Glades Reservoir could give Georgia the ability to send water south to Lanier during dry spells, water that eventually reaches Alabama and Florida. If the state decides to invest and the project moves forward, state officials would require that the land around the newly created lake be preserved, not developed, Riley said. Prior plans for the Glades Reservoir envisioned it as a centerpiece for a housing development.
Environmental groups have instead urged Georgia to focus on conserving water, which they say is far cheaper and produces faster results than building multimillion-dollar reservoirs.
“They are dealing with these torturous potential solutions for water supply when they are not looking — and I know people are getting tired of hearing this — at water efficiency and conservation,” said Sally Bethea, executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
Bethea said state officials should more aggressively consider trying to raise the level of Lake Lanier, the federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River, before seeking to build new reservoirs that consume money and ground.
It’s not clear how Alabama and Florida might react to the emerging plans for the Glades Reservoir. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s administration has questioned the need for the reservoir, and has previously worried that more reservoirs upstream will result in less water flowing downstream.
“While Governor Bentley believes that additional reservoirs may be part of a comprehensive solution to the tri-state controversy, Alabama cannot support additional reservoirs until a comprehensive agreement is reached,” Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said.
Hall County officials have been interested in building the reservoir for years. State officials say water could be released from Glades Reservoir and into Lake Lanier. The city of Gainesville withdraws water from Lake Lanier, treats it and sends it to area business and residents. The water can also flow south toward south Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Lake Lanier has been a flashpoint in the tri-state water feud. In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to take water from that federal reservoir. He threatened to severely restrict water withdrawals for the metro Atlanta region unless the leaders of Alabama, Florida and Georgia reached a political agreement. An appeals court overturned Magnuson’s ruling in 2011 and ruled that the reservoir could legally provide water for Atlanta.
Federal officials are still studying how much water the region can take.
It remains unclear whether U.S. officials would endorse the proposal for the Glades Reservoir. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues permits for new reservoirs and manages Lake Lanier. Unless the Army agreed to work with Georgia, the system would not work.