Water Has Become Key Political Worry; Georgia's Water Rights "Volcano" Stands to Go to Federal Court

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Byline: WALTER C. JONES

CARROLLTON - Solutions to Atlanta's impending water shortage, and how they impact the rest of the state will be a major issue in this year's gubernatorial election, making water a top political concern for the first time. But battles over water are common elsewhere - and protracted.

Attorney Jerry Sherk has made a career out of water battles, as an academic researcher, author and attorney. He compares the dispute between Alabama, Florida and Georgia over Atlanta's water to a volcano. It may be momentarily dormant, but it never goes away.

"Once you have an interstate conflict, you always have one," he told attendees Friday at a conference hosted by the University of West Georgia.

One dispute between Kansas and Arkansas over the Arkansas River has been before the U.S. Supreme Court for 101 years. While that's the extreme, he notes that a more typical example is the case between Kansas and Colorado that has lasted 10 years so far, costing each state roughly $1 million per year.

States in the Midwest with less rainfall than Georgia began fighting over the flow of rivers that cross state borders as soon as settlement began, and population growth has only aggravated things. For example, agreements forced by federal courts to settle conflicts in 1922 were based on populations in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Salt Lake City before they began to boom as recreation and retirement centers. The agreements no longer make sense, but revising them requires not just financial resources but significant political capital as well, according to David Iwanski, water-resources manager in Goodyear, Ariz.

"When it comes to water, there are no red molecules. There are no blue molecules," he said.

He credited Arizona with enacting a series of water-management laws that have not only lessened pressure on water supplies but also put the state in a favorable light during federal court disputes. Georgia needs to make the same preparations, he warned.

"It's not a question of how far behind. It's a question of how fast you can catch up," he said.

GEORGIA'S PLAYING CATCH UP

Georgia's legislature just passed the Georgia Water Stewardship Act, which encourages conservation. A law enacted a year ago created the mechanism for a statewide water-use plan that's being pieced together in districts across Georgia.

Experts say both are positive steps but a long way from what federal courts would likely order if the fight gets that far.

Reuse and recycling are missing, Sherk said.

Georgia's suburbs have exploded with houses tied to septic tanks rather than sewage systems that treat wastewater for reuse. There are a few notable exceptions, such as construction of a pipeline for Newnan's new hospital that will irrigate its lawns with recycled water from a municipal sewage plant.

Overall, Sherk estimates bringing the state up to expectations of the U. …