Water mismanagement worsens drought, environmentalists say

ATLANTA - Poor planning by state and regional decision makers is as much to blame for the critical water shortage gripping North Georgia as Mother Nature or the federal government, environmental advocates charged Wednesday.

The Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of 150 organizations, challenged recent statements by Gov. Sonny Perdue and others that mandatory limits on water use have been forced upon the region because of the drought and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' massive releases of water from depleted Lake Lanier to protect endangered fish downstream in Florida.

A resolution adopted last month by the Atlanta Regional Commission's governing board asserted that metro Atlanta's dramatic growth has had no effect on the current situation.

"The water crisis in Atlanta is largely due to mismanagement ... not mussels and endangered fish," Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said during a news conference outside of the Capitol. "Wise planning could have lessened the severity."

Specifically, the environmental groups went after the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, created by the General Assembly in 2001 to develop and put into effect water plans for a 16-county region.

The coalition released a "report card" slapping the district with four F's and two D's on a variety of water planning subjects.

The failing marks were for allowing the proliferation of septic tanks, which don't return water to rivers as promptly as central sewers, for not encouraging more homeowners to install low-flow plumbing fixtures and for not being aggressive enough in urging water utilities to fix leaky pipes or set tiered rates that punish high-volume customers.

The district received D's for not doing enough to encourage homeowners to put in less water-intensive landscaping and for failing to curb metro Atlantans' high average daily use of water compared to customers in other cities.

"This student seriously needs improvement," Bethea said, sticking with the report card theme. "It's time for less talk and a lot more action."

But Pat Stevens, senior environmental planner for the ARC, said the metro district already has made great strides in conserving the region's water. The ARC provides the water district's staff.

Stevens said most of metro Atlanta's population is served by water utilities that have adopted tiered rates to reward customers who use less water and that have leak detection programs.

"Gwinnett (County) just spent a tremendous amount of money checking every pipe in their system," she said.

Stevens said most of the water systems in the metro area also offer kits showing homeowners how to retrofit low-flow showers and faucets.

"I understand the impatience now because of the drought," she said. "But we are making progress, and we have plans to accomplish a lot more."

Besides attacking the metro water district, speakers at Wednesday's news conference also criticized Georgia's political leaders for not doing enough to foster water conservation.

Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, said the influence of "special interests" - specifically, the real estate industry - in 2004 quashed legislation that would have required homeowners to install low-flow plumbing fixtures before they could sell their properties.

"Our leaders have caved in to those interests," he said.

Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, the bill's chief sponsor, said recently that she plans to reintroduce it during this winter's legislative session.