Reservoirs Losing Longtime Appeal States Seek Other Options to Ensure Water Supply

Article excerpt

Byline: Dave Williams, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- Last year, Georgia hired a reservoirs coordinator to oversee a system of regional reservoirs in the northern half of the state.

To Alison Keefer, that job title is a misnomer.

"The implication is the only option on the table is building reservoirs,'' she said. "Reservoirs were the obvious first choice 10 years ago. . . . But there's really a multiple menu of options for water supply.

"Reservoirs are the last option because they're so expensive and cause environmental problems.''

Historically, reservoirs have been the water supply of choice for areas that rely on surface water in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, three of the four most populous and fastest-growing states in the South.

They're even used in swampy Florida, which depends mostly on groundwater.

But as increasing demand for water has begun to outstrip available supplies in rapidly developing parts of the four states, water planners have begun looking to alternatives, including newer technologies.

Among the emerging options are:

-- Inter-basin transfers, a supply-and-demand concept that moves water from less populous areas where it's abundant to growing communities struggling to keep up with rising demand.

-- Aquifer storage and recovery, a technology roughly equivalent to putting reservoirs underground. As practiced in many areas, treated water is pumped into an aquifer during the rainy season, to be recovered during dry periods.

-- Desalinization, the capturing and conversion of salt water into a potable water supply. In the United States, most desalinization involves brackish water -- including water from bays and other inlets -- because of the costs of treating saltier water taken directly from an ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.

The reservoir option

Texas is moving away from relying on reservoirs. The latest regional water plans there call for adding only eight new major reservoirs to the existing 211 during the next half century.

Still, reservoirs remain the major strategy for water planners in portions of Georgia and North Carolina that depend on surface water.

Both states' largest population centers -- except for Charlotte, N.C. -- are located in regions without large natural water sources, near the headwaters of river systems.

"We're at the upper end of all of the watersheds,'' said Joel Cowan, chairman of the Atlanta-based Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. "All we can do is catch water at a point and use it.''

The place where Atlanta catches water is 38,000-acre Lake Lanier, a reservoir built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s.

The lake has allowed the burgeoning region to withstand periodic droughts, including the persistent dry spell that began in May 1998.

"By having that lake, it's like having something in the bank,'' said Cowan. "We can take it out in wet times and save it for dry times.''

But reservoirs don't come cheap. The new 500-acre Bear Creek Reservoir in Northeast Georgia, for example, cost the four counties cooperating in the venture $36 million.

The Georgia Board of Natural Resources recently approved nearly $50 million in bonds for a 2,300-acre reservoir in western Georgia near the Alabama line.

Reservoirs also have become a target of environmental advocates. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Georgia, damming major rivers or even their tributaries to form reservoirs makes it difficult to maintain downstream channels capable of handling periods of high water flow.

The study said the interruption of natural stream flows also harms fish and other aquatic species, contributing to the depletion of coastal Georgia's commercial fisheries.

"For Georgia to be stuck in that old-school mind-set that we have to be building reservoirs is ridiculous,'' said Alice Miller Keyes, an environmental policy analyst for The Georgia Conservancy and contributor to the study. …