By Joe Cook
Executive Director Coosa River Basin Initiative
The $300 million that Governor Nathan Deal has dedicated to increasing the state’s water supplies will not support the most cost-effective projects available to local communities and, when all is said and done, may not secure one drop of new water, according to members of the Georgia Water Coalition (GWC).
On Nov. 17, the Governor’s Water Supply Task Force approved a plan that excluded water efficiency measures from the list of projects eligible for funding under the Governor’s multi-year initiative. Instead, it appears the funds will be allocated primarily to the promotion of reservoirs and other high cost water supply sources.
Local governments and water utilities are expected to begin competing in January for low interest loans and grants that are being made available under the program.
“In a time when state resources are limited, it appears this program is destined to waste tax dollars,” said Joe Cook, Executive Director & Riverkeeper with the Coosa River Basin Initiative in Rome. “We’re going to invest in proposals for multi-million dollar reservoirs that may never be built when a fraction of that investment in water efficiency projects will get us the same water, faster.”
Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division estimates that water conservation and efficiency measures can cost $0.46 to $250 per 1,000 gallons secured while new reservoirs can cost $4000 per 1,000 gallons secured.
GWC, a consortium of more than 180 conservation-minded groups representing more than 300,000 Georgians, is urging the Task Force and Governor to level the playing field, allowing water efficiency projects to compete for these new state grants and loans.
Projects eligible for funding under the program include new reservoirs, expansion of existing reservoirs, new wells, interconnections between water suppliers, indirect potable water reuse and “emerging” projects such as desalination and aquifer storage and recovery.
GWC contends that the certainty of funding for the Governor’s water supply program is questionable--dependent on appropriations from the legislature and bonds to be paid from receipts from water sales from completed projects.
It is highly unlikely that any project could be completed in the four-year time frame envisioned by the program, and even if the full $300 million is ever appropriated, it is insufficient to construct any new reservoirs, according to GWC. Only $74.25 million is available in the program for FY 2012.
Two proposed reservoirs in North Georgia (Shoal Creek in Dawson County and Glades in Hall County) have a combined expected price of $950 million. The recently completed Hickory Log Reservoir in Cherokee County cost $100 million, nearly five times the originally projected cost, and has strapped the City of Canton with such debt that it has been forced to raise water rates by 30 percent. And, the reservoir has yet to supply any water.
“Lobbyists, lawyers, engineers and real estate interests are all at the front of the line to receive the funds set forth under this program,” said Sally Bethea, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “People with strong records as campaign contributors stand to benefit from this proposal long before any water flows from any of the projects so hopefully contemplated.”
The Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA), the lead agency on the Task Force, has defended the exclusion of water efficiency projects, saying that other financing programs exist for such projects and that local governments are not fully utilizing these state and federal loan programs.
However, GEFA records show that the agency has distributed $65 million in loans for conservation and efficiency projects during the past five years.
And while GEFA’s conservation and efficiency loans have been effective, there is currently no mechanism that allows for direct state investment (grants) in such projects. The Governor’s new program will provide grants for reservoirs and other projects, but communities wanting to implement conservation and efficiency projects will not be able to compete for those same grants.
A March 2011 study conducted by Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper has shown that metro Atlanta communities could secure as much as 160 million gallons a day by fixing leaking pipes, replacing water wasting plumbing fixtures and appliances and by improving the way that water is priced.
In addition to reservoirs, other controversial water supply projects are eligible for funding under the program, including desalination and aquifer storage and recovery.
Desalination projects are highly energy intensive and produce problematic waste. Aquifer storage and recovery involves pumping surface water into underground aquifers.
Georgia has banned its use in South Georgia and its viability as a dependable water supply for North Georgia is still unproven.