Environmental Gobbledygook, Economic Gridlock

By Benita M. Dodd

Which is the environmentally sound approach, policy-makers seeing job creation as the key to economic recovery or environmental groups pushing for stringent prohibitions on interbasin transfers in Georgia? It may seem like a no-brainer, but even for Georgians who believe they know the answer, there’s one caveat:  It’s an election year.  

Georgia legislators are under pressure to satisfy constituents at home who are concerned about losing water from “their” rivers and streams to metro Atlanta. The two Georgias debate, the us-versus-them of rural Georgia and metro Atlanta is fertile ground for fearmongering activists sowing the seeds of environmental “dangers” in moving water from one river basin to another.

What’s the connection between the economy and interbasin transfers? What’s the connection between jobs and the environment?  Those who don’t understand how they are intertwined believe that the decades-long battle Georgia has fought with Florida and Alabama over water allocation is actually about endangered freshwater mollusks and Apalachicola oysters and fragile ecosystems. Those who do understand it know that without an adequate water supply, metro Atlanta – economic engine of Georgia and the Southeast – is doomed to economic stagnation, at the least. With an uncertain water supply to consider, potential investors might take their business elsewhere – perhaps to our neighbors. In any event, the result is a reduced competitive edge for metro Atlanta.

Interbasin transfers have occurred since time immemorial: since humans fetched water from a stream and ingenuity set in as they invented more efficient and effective ways to live and prosper by bringing the water ever closer to the point of use. When the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Management District was established by statute, regional leaders’ most crippling political mistake was to agree to no interbasin transfers from outside the district.

But that prohibition is not enough for some environmental activists. Backed by feel-good but meaningless phrases such as “safe yield,” “respecting natural systems” “approximating natural flow levels and rates,” “biological integrity,” “physical integrity,” no-growth activists are now prodding legislators toward strict regulation of interbasin transfers – including the never-before regulated transfer of groundwater.

Consider the phrase, “respecting natural systems,” for example. Human ingenuity has led to the taming and tailoring of natural systems. Technological advancement is the reason fatalities have declined during natural disasters. It’s why floods aren’t as devastating and earthquakes aren’t as deadly in the United States. “Drought” conditions can largely be managed by that marvel of technology, the reservoir.  Leave a watershed to its own devices to “approximate natural flow levels and rates,” and there’d be no endangered mollusk problem. There’d be no mollusk.

For government to introduce needless, nebulous restrictions on interbasin transfer permits would be a regressive move that prevents the pooling of water resources in Georgia.  It would thwart the kind of cost-effective and efficient regional water management that gives smaller municipalities and governments access to cutting-edge infrastructure. It would eventually force expensive, duplicative infrastructure on Georgia’s ratepayers.

Restricting access to water restricts economic growth. Restricting economic growth makes Georgians more vulnerable to job losses. The link between environmental protection and economic progress is well known. The person worrying about heat for his family isn’t concerned about denuding the forest when he cuts down the tree for wood; the person who struggles to feed his family isn’t worrying about how many fish he takes from the stream. The person with job security, on the other hand, has the leisure to focus on improving his surroundings.

Legislators have a responsibility to point out to their constituents that the rising tide floats all boats, that one hand washes the other. It’s not “us versus them.”

As Georgia considers the alternatives if Lake Lanier is lost to metro Atlanta as a drinking water source, legislators must accept that leadership lies in embracing two major solutions, both of which involve more water: expanded interbasin transfers and expanded reservoir capacity. Those who believe that the answer lies in water conservation alone, and in cutting off metro Atlanta, are miscalculating. Or are they just calculating?   

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 5, 2010). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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