Opinion: Collaboration makes metro Atlanta national leader on water

For decades, Georgia’s neighboring states have engaged in legal battles with us over our shared water resources. Earlier this month, the issue reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by Florida that seeks to limit Georgia’s use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basin.

The stakes are high, and the legal issues are complicated. But one thing is clear: Metro Atlanta has become a national leader in the stewardship of our limited and shared water resources.

Almost two decades ago, the Georgia Legislature created the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, and communities across the 15-county Atlanta region came together to conserve water and plan for the future. Their efforts have been a remarkable success. Today, more than 100 jurisdictions are implementing a uniform, long-term, comprehensive water management program that is required – and enforced – an achievement that is virtually unparalleled in the United States.

Robust water conservation measures have been implemented across the region:

  • Billions of dollars have been invested by water systems to upgrade our water infrastructure.
  • New technology, such as the use of sonar by water providers across the Metro Water District, has helped find and fix tens of thousands of leaks.
  • A toilet rebate program has encouraged homeowners to swap out more than 125,000 old, water-wasting models in favor of high-efficiency units.
  • And, utilities have implemented “tiered” pricing structures – meaning the more you use, the more you pay – that incentivize conservation.

The results have been significant and measurable. Since the Metro Water District was formed in 2001, the region’s total water withdrawals have fallen by more than 10 percent, even as we added more than 1 million new residents amid a growing economy.

Per capita water use in the Metro Water District dropped by 30 percent over the same period – falling from 141 gallons per day in 2001 to 99 in 2015. In fact, a recent study by the Brookings Institute found that metro Atlanta ranked in the best 5 percent for per capita water use, compared to regions across the nation.

By investing in our water infrastructure, most of the water we withdraw – about 70 percent – is highly treated and returned to area rivers, lakes and streams. This supports a healthy environment and vibrant economy, both here at home and for our downstream neighbors. The Metro Water District also continues to focus on collaborating with stakeholders across the region and state to find additional ways of protecting our water resources.

While we are proud of these successes, our work is not finished. World-class water planning and management are critical to maintaining our thriving economy, healthy environment, and quality of life during the inevitable cycles of drought, when there is less water for everybody. In fact, despite the recent rains and snow, much of metro Atlanta remains in a drought because of the relatively low level of Lake Lanier, which is the region’s largest source of water.

We are not alone in our efforts to manage our shared water resources. Everyone in the ACF basin depends on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to manage a complex and connected reservoir system — starting with Lake Lanier above Atlanta and extending south to Lake Seminole at the Georgia-Florida line.

We all depend on the Corps to make smart choices about how much water to store in its reservoirs, and how much water should be released to support uses like water supply, navigation, hydropower generation, and environmental needs.

This is not an easy task, and there are no simple answers. This is especially true as the cycle of recurring droughts continues, placing an even greater premium on science-based water management, collaboration and cooperation among water managers and continued investments to ensure clean, safe water is available for everyone.

In the end, our economic future and our quality of life depend on a safe and reliable water supply.

So, through cycles of drought and continuing litigation, know that metro Atlanta will continue to lead in water conservation as we do our part to manage water resources wisely – now and in the future.

Charlotte Nash is chairman, Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, and chairman, Gwinnett County Commission.

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