Tri-State Water Fight Spurs Questions On Growth A federal judge recently ruled that Georgia doesn't have the right to take drinking water from the Lake Lanier 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.
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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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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now to a long-running dispute between Georgia, Alabama and Florida. They've been fighting over water for nearly two decades. The focus is a reservoir at Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta. Georgia believes it deserves the water. Alabama and Florida say they need the water downstream. Recently a federal judge gave the states three years to resolve their fight.

As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, the judge's ruling is causing a lot of angst in Georgia.

KATHY LOHR: Some 35 miles northeast of Atlanta, not far from Lake Lanier, is the town of Suwanee, Georgia.

(Soundbite of fountain and children playing)

LOHR: Mayor Dave Williams shows me around the main gathering place in town.

Mayor DAVE WILLIAMS (Suwanee, Georgia): We are at our Town Center Park, which is what we refer to as our community front lawn. We're right now on the steps of our City Hall looking at our fountain, which we call the Big Splash. And there's what, about 50 kids out there?

LOHR: On this hot, sticky day, kids of all ages and some parents run through the fountain's dancing water - water the mayor quickly tells me is recycled. In 1990, 2,400 people lived in Suwanee. Now there are nearly 17,000. The growth here was planned, but there's no doubt the city benefited from a plentiful water supply.

Now there's a new worry. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the Lake Lanier reservoir was built for flood control, navigation and hydropower — not 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 size. Mayor Williams says going back is not an option.

Mayor WILLIAMS: 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. But I don't think that we're going to 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.

Mr. SAM OLENS (Chairman, Atlanta Regional Commission): This is absolutely not a discussion over water. This is a discussion over economic development.

LOHR: Sam Olens is chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission. He says much has changed since Congress authorized the dam's construction in the 1940s. And Olens says the downstream states are fighting Atlanta's success.

Mr. OLENS: 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. There is plenty of rain and plenty of water for everyone.

LOHR: 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 maintain its nuclear plant that supplies power to one and a half million people.

Cindy Lowry is with the Alabama Rivers Alliance.

Ms. CINDY LOWRY (Alabama Rivers Alliance): We have to think long term. We have to think 100 years down the road. These are life-sustaining resources. And we can technically live without oil or energy, but we can't live without water.

LOHR: Since the court ruling, pressure has increased for the states to try again. In Washington recently, Alabama's Governor Bob Riley said he's willing to talk.

Governor BOB RILEY (Republican, Alabama): If three good friends can't sit down together and work out a common solution to this problem, I'm going to be very disappointed. Because I really do think this is a great opportunity and I hope it's not an opportunity lost.

LOHR: Florida's governor, Charlie Crist, hasn't made any promises.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): We got a very good ruling that really benefits Florida, helps our oyster industry in Apalachicola and helps us with our water. And we're very pleased by that, and we continue to support that ruling.

LOHR: But Georgia's governor, Sonny Perdue, says he's appealing the ruling, lobbying for a congressional solution and trying to restart water negotiations, talks he's worked on since 2003.

Governor SONNY PERDUE (Republican, Georgia): We've been at the table in many discussions since that time, remain willing to do that. But the judge's ruling has more than likely given Alabama and Florida reason to say, why negotiate?

(Soundbite of motor)

LOHR: North of Atlanta, the reservoir at Lake Lanier is finally filling up after a three-year drought. Georgia's governor 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's ready to play hardball with his neighbors. And he suggests it may be time for a new national policy to resolve the issue.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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