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Real debate on water war can flow freely

So how serious should we take U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson's ruling that will cap the tap on Lake Lanier water? Do you really believe that the sole spigot feeding Gwinnett County's 800,000 residents will be plugged in 2012?

Three-fourths of metro Atlanta and all of Gwinnett County rely on Lake Lanier water. The likelihood of a total ban is ludicrous. The judge himself called it "draconian."

His honor said manmade Lanier's raison d'etres are power generation, river navigation and flood control - not drinking water because Congress never authorized anyone to use it for drinking water. (Does this mean fishing, boating and skiing might be banned, too?)

While absurd on its face, the judge's ruling is likely to be just what we need to move us toward a solution to our water woes.

First, a little background:

Back in the mid-1970s, Gwinnett's 150,000 people were drawing about 13 million gallons a day from the lake. Today, nearly 800,000 residents suck 80 to 90 million gallons a day.

Let's face it. When compared to the "Mighty Mississippi" or the Missouri, Tennessee or Ohio rivers, the Chattahoochee isn't much more than a creek. It was never meant to service a population the size of metro Atlanta. The creation of Lake Lanier made "Hotlanta" possible.

Since that time, the term "water wars" has become cliché. Georgia, Alabama and Florida all have a problem with the water flowing down the Hooch - there's not enough of it. If possession really is nine-tenths of the law, Georgia could lay claim. But the other two states say Georgia's hogging the water and want us to allow increase the flow downstream. We've been feuding forever and are no closer to resolution.

While Judge Magnuson's order will never happen, it brings two positive results.

After suffering a years-long drought, Gov. Sonny Perdue last month declared the dry spell officially over. And indeed, with the lake filling back up and the daily downpours of late, it's easy to forget that not having enough water was ever a problem. Past droughts have seen our governors and legislators beat the drum loudly - until it rains. Then talk of drought evaporates.

The judge's ruling has kept water in the news and on the discussion table. And that's better than waiting until the next drought to bring the subject up again.

Also, the ruling likely will spur our governments back to negotiations. Perdue is already pursing another summit. With a three-year deadline looming, perhaps they'll be able to come to terms.

As we ponder water's future, let's not forget that Gwinnett has done yeoman's work in establishing a healthy relationship with Lanier. The F. Wayne Hill Water Resources Center is a state-of-the art facility that purifies water to near-pristine levels. We already return water to the Chattahoochee, and once the 20-mile pipeline is finished - at the end of this year or early 2010 - we'll send 40 million gallons a day back into the Lake. That means we'll be able to return to Lanier nearly half of the water we draw out. That's good stewardship.

Note: Regular readers of this page may recall last Sunday's editorial about how we waste time, energy and funding, caterwauling about issues, but don't get any closer to solving them. The Georgia attorney general's office reports we've spent more than $6 million in outside attorney fees in the water war. The Atlanta Regional Commission has reportedly spent $5 million. Again, we make the point: that's a lot of money and effort spent that didn't produce one drop of water.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.