By Chick Krautler
Today, Lake Lanier is more than 13 feet below its full pool and nearly 10 feet lower than it was this time last year. The state climatologist sees the next few weeks as critical in determining the extent and severity of the 2008 drought. By contrast, the reservoirs downstream from metro Atlanta are virtually full.
This fact underscores the assertion of ARC and the metro Atlanta water utilities that Lanier’s record lows have more to do with how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has operated the dam than the drought or claims that Atlanta’s growth has outstripped its water supply.
For more than a year and a half, the Corps tried to use Lake Lanier and the other reservoirs in the system to maintain flows in the Apalachicola River. While Lanier is a large reservoir, it cannot drought-proof the lower basin. As a headwaters reservoir, it controls only 9 percent of the flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) basin above the Florida line. Most of the streams in the basin enter the system downstream of Buford Dam.
Flows at the Florida line are 11 times greater than in metro Atlanta, and the majority of these flows – including the entire flow of the Flint River – cannot be stored in any reservoir. Consequently, most of the water in the basin will flow downstream no matter how the Corps operates the dam. Anywhere from 92 percent to 99 percent of the water that enters the ACF is not captured and stored in a reservoir and instead flows downstream to Florida and on to the Gulf of Mexico.
Metro Atlanta’s water use reduces flows at the Florida line by 2 percent at most. Using U.S. Geological Survey and Georgia Environmental Protection Division data, the Atlanta Regional Commission computed the effect of metro Atlanta’s net water withdrawals – the amount the region withdraws from the Chattahoochee and does not return directly to the river – at 1 percent during periods of normal rainfall and 2 percent during drought years.
In other words, if the 3.5 million people who depend upon Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River were to move from the region, flows at the Florida line in normal years would increase, on average, less than two inches. That is an imperceptible amount in a river that experiences daily fluctuations of more than two feet due to hydropower operations.
The Corps operating plan that drained Lake Lanier has had a devastating effect on North Georgia. Jobs have been lost, industry and people are struggling to manage and water utilities are losing revenue as conservation measures reduce usage. A look at the U.S. Drought Monitor maps for Georgia shows that almost the entire western half of the state is experiencing severe drought conditions, with extreme drought in Northeast Georgia.
Chick Krautler, director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for metro Atlanta, wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is 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 (July 25, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.