The final panel discussion focused on interstate water issues between Georgia, Alabama and Florida and included Todd Sillaman, an attorney who has been representing Georgia in its water lawsuits for nine years; Bob Kerr, founding director of Pollution Prevention Assistance Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Harold Reheis, former director of the Environmental Protection Division.
Sillaman noted the rainy weather outside but said the area was behind on inflow to the lakes in January, about 34 percent of normal, and probably will be below normal in February as well. Northwest and central Georgia are in either extreme or exceptional drought.
“We’re really in a perilous spot with Lake Lanier,” he said.
Sillaman talked about the fight over water between Georgia, Alabama and Florida, a dispute dating back to 1990. There are eight lawsuits - six which have been combined - pending in federal courts, he said.
According to Sillaman, the battle over water has been complicated by the introduction of the Endangered Species Act and Florida’s claim that the fat three-ridge mussel, purple bankclimber mussel and gold sturgeon need sufficient flow to survive - flow provided upstream from Georgia’s water reservoirs.
In 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water downstream to maintain a flow of 5,000 cubic feet per second - a flow considered optimal for the fish and mussels.
“We had a dry year in 2006,” Sillaman said. “The reservoir started high and ...the reservoirs dropped faster than any time in history.”
Reheis maintained that much of the reason the water issues have not been solved is political.
“All this mess started in 1990, and it’s not resolved yet,” he said.
Kerr reiterated that argument pointing out that the interested parties did not have the ability to act in confidentiality.
“We had to negotiate in public,” he said. “That led to incredible, outlandishly grandiose statements by people trying to be political animals.”
Four times over the years, agreement were hammered out that were agreeable to all those involved until a special interest group got wind of it and complained, Kerr said. The agreements all had to be discarded.
Kerr did mention that several rock quarries in the drought-stricken area could be sealed up and become a new reservoir.
“But the realistic approach is, there will be water sharing across the basins,” he said. “Whether we do it next week, next month or ten years from now it will happen. There’s no major alternative.”
The audience seemed most interested in how to build up water resources in the midst of all the lawsuits. One member wanted to know the implications of the Hickory Log Creek Reservoir after Alabama filed suit. Another wanted to know if more reservoirs could be built in the tricky legal atmosphere.
Sillaman pointed out that the suit against Hickory Log Creek came way late, after the dam had been constructed and the gates closed. He thought the courts would be unlikely to force the owners to empty the existing reservoir, but the decision remains to be seen. As for more reservoirs, he noted that any might be challenged if they could possibly lower the water flow to another state.
“We’ve never had a drought like this in Georgia “ it’s an unprecedented drought,” Reheis said. “It calls for unprecedented response and actions to get through it. Nobody in government likes to see anybody get hurt as a result of their decisions, and I know that there are people that have been hurt as a result of the restrictions that have been required by state government, by local government, as a result of this drought. I hope we all can learn something from it so that the next time we have a bad drought, there’s less harm done.”
And this will not be the last drought, both he and Kerr cautioned.
Carroll County Emergency Management Agency Director Tim Padgett attended to get some insight on water management. He and the Carroll County Water Authority administrators are revising the county’s drought emergency plan, so any information that could help him in that project is helpful, Padgett said.
“What we’re looking at doing is looking at existing wells that are out there and basically just fixing an emergency plan in case the drought continued or we did run out of water,” he said.
The EMA is looking to form a partnership with the Water Resources Center at UWG in identifying and mapping the water resources in the county, Padgett said.
“We always try to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.
Carroll County Engineer Brian Kent was at the conference to learn what the Environmental Protection Division plans are for watershed requirements.
“The county is responsible for implementing those changes, so it’s good for us to get the bigger picture on what EPD, the DNR, what everyone is proposing, because that’s definitely going to affect how our local ordinance is going to be enforced,” Kent said.
And UWG student Kristen Harris came to the conference for her geology class.
“It was kind of interesting,” said Harris, who “snuck in in between classes.”
With all the talk about the drought, hearing the speakers allowed her to be a little more informed about Georgia’s water situation, Harris said. She said she planned to do more research on her own to complete her project.