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By being a basic human need, water is a precious resource for any region. Its presence and availability is essential for the development of cities and countries. In the not so distant future, there might be wars fought over who possesses the right to use the water available. Though far from being an armed conflict, Georgia has been involved for decades in a heated debate with its neighbors Alabama and Florida over the use for the water resources that the three states share in which Lake Lanier plays a special role. During the recent drought local residents had a glimpse of what the future might look if Georgia loses the battle. It is becoming evident that the state needs to start working towards and alternative to Lake Lanier, regardless of the outcome of the discussion.
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Lake Sidney Lanier was created in the mid 1950’s with the construction of the Buford Dam by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. As authorized by Congress, its original purpose was to provide hydroelectric power, flood control, and navigation. The Army Corps of Engineers controls the dam and consequently, the release of water from the lake to the Chattahoochee River (“Water war”). As the Metro Atlanta area grew, it started consuming water out the lake excessively and without any kind of rational planning. This increased demand, along with droughts that affected the southeastern states, took a toll on the Chattahoochee River caudal. Also with rights over the water of the Chattahoochee are Alabama and Florida, who have economic and environmental interests that rely on it. The right over how much water Atlanta was entitled to use started a dispute that has been going on for years between the three states, a conflict that has come to be called “the water wars” (Bryan).
As late as 1989, there was an attempt for part of the Army Corps of Engineers to reallocate water used for hydroelectric power generation to accommodate Atlanta’s growing water need. This proposition raised awareness in the states of Alabama and Florida, who got involved in the matter because they saw their respective interests endangered by Georgia’s growing demand. More recently, Atlanta officials tried to come to an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers that would increase the amount of water the area could use. However, it was ruled in court that a decision like that had to be approved by Congress (Bryan). Georgia appealed the ruling and in July 2009, Judge Paul Magnuson decided that the city of Atlanta had been illegally using Lake Lanier as a source of water because the Lake was not created with the purpose of supplying the city, and the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t have the authority to allow withdrawals from the Lake. It also declared that if the three states didn’t come to an agreement by July 2012, the releases from the Lake would be cut back to 1970’s levels (Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper). Such a decision, while not really affecting the interests of Alabama and Florida, represents a big problem for Georgia and specifically the Atlanta Metro area that will have to look at alternative sources of water. This puts Georgia in a difficult position in the negotiations because it is really the only state facing serious consequences if the sanction were to take place. While planning to appeal the decision of the judge, governor Perdue created a Water Contingency Task Force in October 2009 to analyze and provide recommendations in case the ruling was to take effect in 2012 (Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper).
The dispute over the water resources is extremely complex given the large amount of factors involved. Each state has different stakes in the debate. For Georgia, the importance clearly resides on the need to supply a key economic area with a growing population that reached 3.8 million inhabitants with usable water (Sweet). Not having any major rivers flowing trough its territory, Lake Lanier is an essential resource for Georgia and the state would have to invest enormous amounts of money and time to develop alternatives. As concluded in the final report of the Water Contingency Task Force, “Lake Lanier is clearly the most economically sensible and environmentally friendly water supply source for the metro Atlanta region.” (Water Contingency Task Force, 39).
It would seem like Georgia has a strong position in the dispute given that roughly 3 million people depend on Lake Lanier water on a daily basis. However, Alabama and Florida have rights over the water that flows down trough the Chattahoochee and they want their share. There are important economic and environmental interests and each could pose serious consequences to the region if they were affected. Alabama for example, relies on the Chattahoochee River for cooling the Joseph M. Farley Nuclear Plant, which provides electricity to more than 800,000 households in the three states involved, as stated by Alabama governor Bill Riley, who also criticized Georgia for the lack of actions and prohibitions to preserve water during the times of drought (Whoriskey). It seems like a hard decision to take between water and electricity for the people involved. Another justified concern for Alabama is that the quality of the water is being affected by toxics added to the river upstream in Georgia (Bryan). It is not a secret that Georgia has serious problems with pollution. This is an important issue that would not only affect industries but could also endanger people’s health.
On Florida’s side, the water coming from Georgia feeds the Apalachicola River which ends in the Apalachicola Bay. The argument sustained in court by Florida is the need to protect three endangered species that have their habitat on the Apalachicola Bay and River. It is necessary to maintain enough water flowing through the river to preserve the animal wildlife in the zone. The whole biological equilibrium of the region depends on that (Whoriskey). Also, the Apalachicola Bay produces 10% of the oysters consumed in the US, and therefore, is an important economic site for the seafood industry of Florida (Goodman). It would not just be a matter of deciding whether the animals or the people in Georgia get the water. The animal life of the bay provides a source of employment to the people in the Apalachicola Bay area who will be affected in the case of water scarcity.
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Obviously, with that much at risk, none of the states are willing to lose the water war. The outcome of the discussion could have repercussions at a national level. However, Washington has not intervened so far supposedly waiting for the state governments to take care of the matter by themselves. But are all the sides really interested in solving the conflict? It is been suggested that Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue may not be interested in settling the problem. Running towards the end of his term in office, and with Georgia not facing good prospects in the resolution of the conflict, Perdue doesn’t want to be remembered as the governor who lost the “water wars”. Finding an actual solution would be a task that his successor as governor will have to undertake (“A Tale of 3 Governors”).
For the time being, the future is not looking good for Georgia. The decision of judge Magnuson set a deadline that is hard to meet in case that no agreement was reached. Cutting back the releases from the lake to as they were in the mid 1970’s is an unreasonable decision. The area has grown immensely since that time, as evidenced by Gwinnett County, one of the counties that heavily rely on Lake Lanier for its water needs. The county had a population of 167,000 in 1980 and today it reaches 800,000 people (Goodman). It is obvious that the amount of water released will be insufficient to say the least. The region needs to find alternatives to compensate for the water deficit that would be caused by the loss of the lake. There is the option of keeping the legal battle trying to overrule the decision of Judge Magnuson. Georgia can appeal and win the court ruling but metro Atlanta is going to keep growing and demanding more water. How long until the dispute starts again? Wouldn’t it be better to spend the state’s money trying to find a solution than paying for lawyers?
The report of the Water Contingency Task Force created by Perdue has shed some light over the consequences and possible alternatives to consider. The final report released in December 2009 revealed that the metro area will not be able to meet the water shortfall if the sanction were to take effect and that no solutions or alternatives could be implemented in time for the deadline. It provided two possible solutions, one for the year 2015 and other for 2020, given preference to the later for being more cost effective (Water Contingency Task Force). Even if some other approach is taken to solve the problem, the report will be a useful guideline and reference.
Georgia residents need to be aware of the magnitude of the issue and demand that the local governments take action to prevent a future crisis. Measures such as raising the price of water or creating a special tax for companies that use large quantities of water will not be welcomed by the public, but they will ensure that people value water and create more initiatives to save or reuse the precious resource. Residents need to be educated to use water efficiently and mindfully in order to avoid or minimize the consequences of the water scarcity that will affect us in the future in one way or another. With the proper planning and willingness, Georgia citizens can turn a potential disaster into an opportunity to strengthen and develop the state’s water infrastructure to a whole new level.
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