As printed in the Pickens County Progress, 4 March 2010

Joe Cook with the Coosa River Basin Initiative presented last Thursday evening at the Mountain Conservation Trust speaker’s meeting in Jasper. Cook explained that a recent federal court ruling declaring Atlanta has no rights to drinking water from Lake Lanier has prompted lawmakers and environmental groups to create new water policies. The state has until 2012 to halt withdrawals or resolve its long-running water dispute with Alabama and Florida.

One proposed law would regulate inter-basin water transfers. As Cook described, some water basins have more than enough water for their community, others, such as the Atlanta metropolitan area, do not have enough water to meet the needs of their population. Some lawmakers believe that transferring water from water-rich communities to water-poor communities is a solution to the problem.

However, Cook says we do not always consider our neighbors downstream or the ecosystem affected when making these decisions. Interbasin transfers can threaten the prosperity of downstream communities, threaten the health of our rivers, fisheries, and wildlife, create political conflicts within our state and with neighboring states, and promote the inefficient use of water and energy, states Cook.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is charged with issuing water withdrawal permits from our state’s rivers, lakes, and streams. Essentially, the only additional regulations for interbasin transfer withdrawals are for the EPD Director, who issues all water withdrawal permits, to submit a press release seven days before issuance of the permit to newspapers in the areas that might be affected by the transfer.

For such a politically contentious issue and one that has such great potential to impact our rivers and our communities, this minimal oversight provides little assurance according to Cook. Georgia has no laws prohibiting interbasin transfers.

One project close to home is the proposal to build a reservoir on Shoal Creek in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area. This project includes plans to pipe 100 million gallons a day from the Etowah River Basin to Metro Atlanta and could mean as much as 10 percent of the river’s flow at Dawsonville will be lost.

For downstream communities like Canton, Marietta, Cartersville, Rome, and neighboring Alabama, the loss of 100 million gallons per day from the Etowah is significant. Such a transfer is seven percent of the river’s average annual daily flows.

Cook also stated that a reservoir on Shoal Creek would wipe out some of the last remaining pristine habitat for the federally threatened Cherokee darter and the federally endangered Etowah darter. Shoal Creek is considered a Priority 1 habitat for the darters under the Etowah Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). These fish species are endemic to the Etowah River Basin and are found nowhere else in the world. Aside from sediment from stormwater runoff, the biggest threat to these species is reservoir construction. They cannot survive in lake habitats.