ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration won approval Wednesday to invest $45 million in water projects, including three reservoirs it contends could send more water downstream to Alabama and Florida, states that say metro Atlanta uses too much.
A board voted to allocate roughly $40 million in funding for the Glades Reservoir project in Hall County, Indian Creek Reservoir in Carroll County and Richland Creek Reservoir in Paulding County. State officials will now negotiate with local governments to determine how much money each project gets. Another $5 million is earmarked for a project testing water desalination in coastal Georgia.
Deal’s administration has prioritized investing in projects that give Georgia’s state government access to water it could send downstream to depleted waterways, particularly during droughts. That could be useful since Georgia has fought since 1990 with neighboring Alabama and Florida over regional water usage. Georgia communities south of Atlanta and Alabama and Florida contend that Atlanta uses too much water upstream, leaving too little for downstream residents, businesses and wildlife.
Florida last month asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide how much water the states can take from the basin formed by the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. Florida blames metro Atlanta’s water consumption for causing a die-off of oysters in Apalachicola Bay.
“What we are purchasing is the ability to store that water and have access to it in times of drought,” said Kevin Clark, executive director of the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.
Clark denied during a public meeting that Deal, who is from Hall County, had shown any favoritism by making the Glades Reservoir a finalist for state investment.
“This is not a politically motivated decision,” he said. “This is a key project.”
It seems unlikely Georgia’s neighbors will support the projects. Florida is legally challenging Georgia’s water use. Meanwhile, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s office has said his state could not support new reservoirs unless they were part of a comprehensive agreement. The executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Sally Bethea, said she was skeptical the new reservoirs would solve the conflict.
“Over the past two decades, Alabama and Florida have opposed the new reservoirs that Georgia has proposed,” Bethea said in a statement. “Why expect a different reaction this time?”
The decision Wednesday marks a shift in how Georgia’s state government has funded water projects. Historically, the state would lend local governments money to build reservoirs that meet local needs.
While loan programs continue, Deal’s administration also wants to invest directly in reservoirs. In return for its money, Georgia’s state government would get access to water it could release downstream, for example, to protect wildlife during droughts and increase the water flowing into Alabama and Florida.
The Glades Reservoir could send more water into the federal reservoir at Lake Lanier, a flashpoint in the tri-state water dispute. In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that Atlanta had little right to take water from that federal reservoir. Magnuson threatened to drastically restrict metro Atlanta’s water withdrawals from Lake Lanier unless the three states reached a political agreement.
A federal appeals court overturned that decision, finding that metro Atlanta could take water from the lake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying how much water can be supplied to the region.