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Reservoir plans popular with politicians, worrisome to Greens

ATLANTA - Georgia politicians are suddenly abuzz with talk about a plan to build state reservoirs to prevent a future water crisis, but environmentalists are pouring cold water on the idea.

Green groups say the legislative proposal to spend state dollars to build and expand reservoirs is too costly - and too time-consuming - to solve Georgia's water woes.

'They cost millions of dollars and take many years to build,' said April Ingle of the Georgia River Network. 'It seems like we should get serious about water conservation before we start building reservoirs.'

Unsuccessful proposals to build state-funded reservoirs in Georgia have been floated repeatedly over the last two decades, most recently in 2002 when a plan backed by former Gov. Roy Barnes to build a west Georgia reservoir died with his defeat at the polls.

But an epic drought threatening the state's water supply has brought with it a change in political attitude. Now many of the state's Republican leaders are backing a spending spree to build more lakes.

Legislative leaders unveiled their proposal the same week that Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered public water utilities in north Georgia to cut their withdrawals, declared a state of emergency in the region and asked the federal government for help.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, leader of the state Senate, want to devote 'significant' state dollars to help local communities build new reservoirs and expand existing ones.

Their plan also aims to speed up the reservoir construction process, which Richardson said can take more than a decade, by creating a 'one-stop shop' for proposals. Even so, all reservoirs would still need to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the region's water resources.

'We are going to put the full energy of the state behind this,' Richardson said.

Georgia's federal lawmakers, too, have signaled support for the plan. 'I think reservoirs are part of the answer,' said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. 'Conservation is a major part as well.'

But many critics fear the reservoirs are too costly, both in financial and environmental terms. Some point to economic figures cited by a state environmental adviser as evidence.

Water conservation efforts cost between 50 cents and $150 per 1,000 gallons of water, said Alice Miller Keyes, a policy adviser for the state Environmental Protection Division. A new reservoir, meanwhile, costs about $4,000 per 1,000 gallons.

'Water conservation is definitely part of the long term plan for sustaining Georgia's resources,' she said. 'If we were to deny the fact that water conservation is managing our growing demand for limited supply, we'd be pretty naive to think we can sustain our resources.'

Transforming free-flowing rivers into lakes also could imperil native species and prevents water from flowing downstream to other communities, critics say.

Joe Cook, the executive director of the Upper Coosa Riverkeeper, worries that a new reservoir in the northwest Georgia river system he oversees could threaten 30 aquatic species - including snails, fish and mussels - found only in the basin.

'We need to slow down this race to build reservoirs,' he said. 'It's not going to solve the water problem. You build more, and you provide more water, then you'll have more growth. And 30 years down the line, we'll be in the same place we are in now.'