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Tri-State Water Fight Spurs Questions On Growth
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Tri-State Water Fight Spurs Questions On Growth

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Tri-State Water Fight Spurs Questions On Growth

Tri-State Water Fight Spurs Questions On Growth
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Lake Lanier i

Lake Lanier's waters have been fought over by Georgia, Alabama and Florida for nearly two decades. The governors of the three states have three years to negotiate a deal over water use. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR
Lake Lanier

Lake Lanier's waters have been fought over by Georgia, Alabama and Florida for nearly two decades. The governors of the three states have three years to negotiate a deal over water use.

Kathy Lohr/NPR
Children play at the Big Splash fountain in Suwanee, Ga. i

Children play at the Big Splash fountain in Suwanee, Ga., some 35 miles northeast of Atlanta. The city's growth has been explosive since the 1990s, and there's no doubt the city benefited from a plentiful water supply. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR
Children play at the Big Splash fountain in Suwanee, Ga.

Children play at the Big Splash fountain in Suwanee, Ga., some 35 miles northeast of Atlanta. The city's growth has been explosive since the 1990s, and there's no doubt the city benefited from a plentiful water supply.

Kathy Lohr/NPR
Suwanee, Ga., Mayor Dave Williams stands in front of City Hall i

Suwanee, Ga., Mayor Dave Williams says it's unlikely that the town will run out of water, but it will never take water for granted again. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR
Suwanee, Ga., Mayor Dave Williams stands in front of City Hall

Suwanee, Ga., Mayor Dave Williams says it's unlikely that the town will run out of water, but it will never take water for granted again.

Kathy Lohr/NPR

Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been bickering over water for nearly two decades. The focus: a reservoir at Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta.

Georgia believes it deserves the water. Alabama and Florida say it is needed downstream. A federal judge recently ruled that Georgia doesn't have the right to take drinking water from the reservoir, but that is where 3.5 million Atlanta residents get their water. Now, some wonder whether the area can continue to grow without it.

Some 35 miles northeast of Atlanta, not far from Lake Lanier, is the town of Suwanee, Ga. In 1990, 2,400 people lived there; now, there are nearly 17,000. The growth was planned, but there is no doubt that the city benefited from a plentiful water supply.

Judicial Decision

Now there is a new worry. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the Lake Lanier reservoir was built for flood control, navigation and hydropower — not for drinking water. So, the judge gave the governors three years to negotiate a deal.

If they can't, Congress must approve drinking water as an appropriate use, or Georgia must return to the amount it withdrew in the 1970s, when the Atlanta area was only one-third its current size.

Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams says going back is not an option.

"If you're asking me, do I think we're literally going to have no water — I don't think that's going to be the case," he says. "But I don't think we're going to probably ever again take for granted the fact that we can build as much as we want and the water is going to be there to be had."

Economic Development

Sam Olens, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, says the case is absolutely not a discussion over water, but rather a discussion over economic development. He says that much has changed since Congress authorized the dam's construction in the 1940s, and that the downstream states are fighting Atlanta's success.

"If anyone with a straight face can tell you that Lake Lanier should solely be used for hydropower, flood control and navigation, I'll show you someone who has zero credibility," Olens says. "There is plenty of rain and plenty of water for everyone."

But a recent drought pointed out the problems.

Florida is worried about getting enough water for Apalachicola Bay to support its oyster and shrimp industries. Alabama says it needs water to continue the state's growth and to maintain its nuclear plant that supplies power to 1.5 million people.

Cindy Lowry with the Alabama Rivers Alliance says state officials have to start thinking long term.

"We have to think 100 years down the road," Lowry says. "These are life-sustaining resources. We can technically live without oil or energy, but we can't live without water."

Prospects Of Negotiations

Since last month's court ruling, pressure has increased for the states to try again. In Washington, D.C., recently, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said he is willing to talk.

"If three good friends can't sit down together and work out a common solution, I am going to be very disappointed, because I really do think this is a great opportunity and I hope it's not an opportunity lost," Riley says.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has not made any promises.

"We got a very good ruling that really benefits Florida, helps our oyster industry in Apalachicola, and helps us with our water," Crist says. "We're very pleased by that, and we continue to support that ruling."

Georgia's Gov. Sonny Perdue says he is appealing the ruling, lobbying for a congressional solution and trying to restart water negotiations — talks he has worked on since 2003.

"We've been at the table in many discussions since that time, [and we] remain willing to do that," Perdue says. "But the judge's ruling has more than likely given Alabama and Florida reason to say, 'Why negotiate?' "

North of Atlanta, the reservoir at Lake Lanier is finally filling up after a three-year drought. Perdue says as many as 48 reservoirs across the country could pose the same question as this one because most did not establish drinking water as a purpose when they were built.

Perdue says he is ready to play hardball with his neighbors, and he suggests that it may be time for a new national policy to resolve the issue.

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