The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slipped in an out of Rome almost unnoticed last week.
These managers of all things water in the Coosa River Basin were not setting down pontoon bridges across our rivers stealth-like as they did to assist Gen. Sherman’s assault on Atlanta in 1864.
They were actually holding a public meeting, and the topic of discussion at the meeting will impact Northwest Georgia far longer than the Corps’ floating bridges of the Civil War.
In question is how much water should metro Atlanta water utilities be allowed to pump from Lake Allatoona — a reservoir created by the Corps when it built Allatoona Dam on the Etowah River near Cartersville in 1950.
Since the 1980s, the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority (CCMWA) has petitioned the Corps to take more water from the big federal reservoir.
In 1989, the Corps said, “Sure, we’ll give you about twice what you take now,” to which the State of Alabama said, “Whoa now, that’s way too much.” Alabama filed a lawsuit against the Corps, and since 1990, the Corps has taken no action on CCMWA’s longstanding plea for more water.
But, late last year, a federal court ordered the Corps to finally do something, and thus the public meeting last week. The Corps is now undergoing a study that will determine, among other things, how much water can be taken from Allatoona without hurting lake recreation, hydro-power production at the dam, flood control and downstream water users.
The study is, of course, long overdue and a daunting task.
Here, let’s pause for words you’ve rarely heard someone living downstream say of metro Atlanta neighbors: During the past two decades, CCMWA, and particularly the Cobb County Water System, have been good stewards of Allatoona.
Because they are using water more wisely, water demands in the area serviced by CCMWA are about the same as they were in the 1990s while providing water to 30 percent more people.
The net loss of water from the Etowah River Basin, what’s known as “interbasin transfer,” has also been kept in check.
Providing more water directly from Allatoona for water supply makes sense. It will forestall or eliminate the need to build more dams and water supply reservoirs on creeks feeding the Etowah that cost water customers and taxpayers hundreds of millions and further damage our river system and the rare fish and other creatures that live in them.
The real question, and the one that will hopefully be answered by the Corps’ study, is what is reasonable? How much can be removed without causing harm?
Whatever the Corps decides, it should meet some basic criteria: Changes to the way Allatoona is managed…
♦ shouldn’t put at risk water supplies for downstream users — and the growth potential that comes with those supplies.
♦ must assure that water removed from Allatoona is returned as adequately treated wastewater to be available to downstream water users.
♦ should consider improving habitat for fish and mussels in the Etowah River below Allatoona Dam, a stretch of river that has seen fish and mussel populations decimated since construction of the dam.
♦ should assure downstream communities that flood risks will not increase.
Undoubtedly, the Corps’ decision will not satisfy everyone, but hopefully it will be a decision we can all live with without taking the issue back to federal court once again.
Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman is executive director and Riverkeeper for the Coosa River Basin Initiative.