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The Environmental Group

Water concerns in Georgia have intensified during the past few years for two reasons:

  • Population growth and development that put heavy demands on water availability
  • Legislative efforts that would allow water-withdrawal permit holders to trade their allocations

Courtesy of Georgia Water Coalition

Most of Georgia’s growth has occurred in the Metro Atlanta area and, most recently, in suburban counties south of the city. This major metropolitan area’s primary water source is the Chattahoochee River Basin, which is Georgia’s, and the nation’s, smallest watershed supplying such a large population. Metro Atlanta’s increasing demand for water from the Chattahoochee has caused downstream cities, including Columbus, to join Florida and Alabama in a suit seeking greater water availability. The neighboring states also include in their suit other rivers entering their borders, as well as the Upper Floridan Aquifer, which underlies a large part of the southern Coastal Plain and is heavily used by agriculture. Because these states have statewide water management plans that strengthen their position in the dispute, Georgia is in the process of developing a similar plan that should help resolve both the interstate and intrastate water problems.

The concept of privatizing water to the extent of allowing marketing of free, state-issued withdrawal permits initially was part of the legislation authorizing Georgia’s water management plan. Permit trading, which is supported by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, among others, would be big business in two regions: southern Georgia where no new allocations from the Floridan aquifer are permitted, and Metro Atlanta where demand is overwhelming supply. Ultimately set aside for now, this likely will be revisited when the General Assembly debates the management plan, due from the Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to the Water Council in 2007, and to the legislature in 2008.

The Georgia Water Coalition, a statewide partnership of 140 community and environmental organizations, is a strong supporter of a plan that maintains water as a public resource and manages water in a sustainable manner for all users. As members of the Coalition, SNCA and the Soque River Watershed Association participate in meetings and such endeavors as lobbying the General Assembly and interfacing with local governments. Believing, for instance, that lobbying by county and municipal government associations helped to remove permit trading from management plan legislation, the Coalition drafted a resolution that would put local governments’ approval on record. Many counties and municipalities have adopted the resolution, including Habersham County, Clarkesville, and White County (although SNCA petitioned Cleveland and Helen to do so as well).

Local Water Concerns

As in Georgia overall, the fastest growing water-use sector in White and Habersham counties is residential. Already the predominant water user, our rapidly growing population, estimated at 25% in White County since the 2000 census, is putting significant pressure on drinking water availability. A recent EPD year-round study of water use in nearby Toccoa found average domestic consumption to be 63 gallons per person per day. At this realistic rate, White County’s census estimate of 20,000 consumed 1.26 million gallons per day, and the current estimated population uses about 1.6 mil/gal/day.

Our water supply comes from both surface and ground water, with municipalities generally using surface water and outlying areas using groundwater. The importance of groundwater goes beyond its several consumptive uses. Water under the ground flows down gradient from higher to lower pressure areas, frequently resurfacing (discharging) in lower places as springs and the baseflow of streams, ponds, and wetlands. During drier months of September – November, stream flow is sustained primarily by groundwater.

Turner Creek,
White Co. Water Supply

Like surface water, most groundwater is part of the water cycle and renewable only by rainfall. Here, and in much of north Georgia, infiltration of significant amounts of rainwater into the ground (recharge) occurs only in weathered areas of otherwise impermeable bedrock. Topography also limits groundwater recharge because slopes and ridges must retain rain long enough for the process to occur. Seepage from lakes, ponds, and channels contributes only a minor amount of recharge.

Contrary to widespread perception, then, our water supply is not overly abundant, but is limited and dependent primarily on an environment that optimizes both availability and quality. The role of vegetation in such an environment is paramount. Vegetation slows and traps a lot of rainfall. Exposed tree roots can actually dam water, and deep roots aid in bedrock weathering. The shading effect of foliage reduces evaporation.

Development near White Co. Reservoir

Water not absorbed into the ground (runoff) is filtered by vegetation, reducing the silt load as it enters surface waterways. Foliage along our streams not only reduces evaporation, but also helps maintain a water temperature that retards undesirable bacteria and chemical reactions and promotes species like trout that require cool, well-oxygenated water.

Aptly titled quilt.
Courtesy of Georgia River Network.

As vegetation removal and build-up of asphalt and concrete continue, groundwater recharge areas, limited by nature, are diminished and runoff is increased. Government efforts to mitigate these impacts of development, including stream bank setbacks, best management practices for land disturbance activities, and mountain protection, are recent, controversial and, so far, minimally effective. The first two are legislative initiatives that are underfunded, affecting enforcement especially. If groundwater consumptive use cannot be sustained in outlying residential and commercial sectors, expanding surface water supply will be costly, both environmentally and monetarily.

In addition to short-changing water in the budget, some legislators want to chip away at specific regulations such as stream setback distances and variance requirements. The 2007 General Assembly will be dealing with these, as well as other so-called ‘property rights’ issues that will weaken current environmental regulations. The Water Coalition will continue to lobby for policies that protect water availability and quality, including widening rather than decreasing stream buffer zones.