In 2009, a federal judge ruled that the City of Atlanta had been illegally tapping drinking water from Lake Lanier. The city, which has been facing a water shortage crisis for years, was given until 2012 to apply for a legal permit or to find an alternative solution. According to Jenny Sanders of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, the thirsty giant with a population of almost six million has recently turned its gaze to northeast Georgia and the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River in Rabun County.
This week Sanders paid visits to both the Franklin Town Board of Aldermen and the Macon County Board of Commissioners to lay out the threat posed by a potential “interbasin transfer” from the Little Tennessee. Sanders also reported on the activities of elected officials in Rabun County who are seeking protection from such a possibility, whether the water is taken from the Little Tennessee or from Lake Burton at the headwaters of the Tallulah River. In response, both boards passed unanimous resolutions in support of Rabun County and its quest to enact legislation that would regulate water transfers and make guidelines from agencies such as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources legally binding.
According to Sanders, an interbasin transfer occurs when water is permanently removed from one river basin and deposited into another. Such transfers can have serious negative implications for the ecologies of both basins involved. “When a river is consistently low,” Sanders explained, “it begins to attract groundwater to provide a base flow. This can lower the water table. Wells can run dry. Ponds and lakes can dry up.”
Low water levels can lead to a host of problems for biodiversity, fish reproduction, drinking water and recreation. Meanwhile, rivers receiving excess water also face problems. “Sustained increased flow in the receiving river can contribute to increased incidence of flooding and cause floodplain maps to become obsolete,” explained Sanders.
In Sanders’s presentations to elected officials this week, she also outlined a range of negative economic impacts for the Little Tennessee River Basin, from recreational fishing to lakeside development, if an interbasin transfer should be approved that could draw as much as four to five million gallons of water a day from the river.
The Rabun County Board of Commissioners voted on Jan. 25 to have their county attorney draft a resolution that can be given to legislators in the Georgia General Assembly urging them to regulate interbasin transfers. On Tuesday, Sanders presented a proposed resolution to Macon commissioners which recognized the invaluable resource of the Little Tennessee River and acknowledged the severity of potential impacts in the case of an interbasin transfer. The resolution also states that Macon County is “united” with Rabun County in its concern and supports its efforts to lobby for regulatory protections.
The resolution reads, in part: “Now, therefore, be it resolved that Macon County is united with Rabun County in their concern that the guidelines for interbasin transfers approved by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board on Jan. 21, 2011, have no enforceable regulations regarding interbasin transfers in the State of Georgia; and furthermore, Macon County supports Rabun County in urging the General Assembly of Georgia to pass a statute that regulates the transfer of water from one river basin to another.”
The resolution was passed unanimously by the board, with Commissioner Ronnie Beale commenting that the issue was extremely important to all communities downstream from Georgia in the Little Tennessee Basin. Beale said that Macon County had been paying close attention to the issue for a number of years. Commissioner Bobby Kuppers noted that he and Beale had both been present at the recent meeting of the Rabun commissioners to learn more about the issue. On Monday, the Franklin town board passed an almost identical resolution.
Sanders noted that while the resolutions had little weight in the Georgia General Assembly, “this is basically a statement that we recognize that our water, particularly the water that originates in Rabun County’s jurisdiction, provides us with with economic benefits and draws tourism, and that shipping clean water to Atlanta will unfairly redistribute growth potential.”
“If we don’t have water, we’re not growing,” she added.
Besides the resolution, Sanders also explained that the LTWA, which has been working closely with advisors from Duke University, was supporting a proposal to create a Little Tennessee Advisory Commission that would provide guidance and make recommendations to local, state and federal administrative bodies. Such a commission would be a stakeholder group comprised of elected officials from each state and each county located in the basin as well as members representing industry, agriculture and non-profits groups like the LTWA.
According to Sanders, such a commission would require the support of the state legislatures in Tennessee and Georgia, as well as the North Carolina General Assembly. She noted that such a bill was already passed by the N.C. Senate in 2009, but has yet to be moved through the House. In addition, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians should also formally acknowledge the commission.
“We would be smart to have something like this in place before July, 2012,” Sanders told the board, asking them to express their support for such a commission to Rep. Phil Haire.
Greenway Invasives Partnership
Also on Tuesday, Sunny Himes of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee came before the commissioners to present a proposed agreement between the county and the LTLT for the Greenway Invasives Partnership Project. The preliminary goal of the Greenway Invasives program is to preserve the Greenway as a natural area and to protect its native plants and animals. The objectives are to minimize the spread and distribution of non-native invasive plants and to restore areas already impacted by invasive species. Approximately 42.6 acres of land would be covered by the agreement, which would allow the partners in the program to be considered for funding through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Extensive discussion of the agreement ensued, with some commissioners, including Commissioner Kuppers, wanting to confirm that such an agreement would not bind the county or penalize it for such things as sewer line maintenance which may be required in the area. County Attorney Chester Jones agreed that such considerations were an issue and that specific language should be incorporated into the agreement stipulating the county’s rights. Chairman Brian McClellan stated that the board supported the partnership but wanted to be sure that the county would not be subjected to unreasonable restrictions. The board told Himes that they would be happy to expedite the process of settling on the agreement language so that there would be no hold up in the funding process.
Commissioners hear Public Comment
The number of individuals that addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting included five participants.
Eddie Tippett spoke concerning a 12” water line being proposed across his property located on Highway 28N. Commenting on the proposal, Tippett stated he didn’t really want it on his property but he would entertain an offer. “I live below the road so if a 12 ft. water line broke, it would wash me away,” he said. He added that an offer of a $1,000 had been made as a one-time payment for a lifetime rights use. Not feeling that was a fair price he stated he made a counter offer of $700 a year to be reassessed at the end of five years.
“I hope we can resolve this without taking it to court. I have made a very good counter offer and I haven’t heard anymore of it,” he said. “I hope this board doesn’t take an arrogant stance and steamroll over people to use their property anyway they want to. I hope we can resolve this peacefully.”
Chairman McClellan advised Tippett to continue a dialogue with the county manager and hopefully come to a satisfactory decision that everyone can live with.
Leigh Hodges spoke on the protection of the proposed Zahner Wilderness Study Area in the Blue Valley Overflow Creek area. “When you protect a wilderness area you are in fact supporting your economy. It brings visitors to the area, to visit, to stay in hotels and to shop,” she said. “I know you want to do what’s right for Macon County. I hope you will keep these things in mind when you do come to a vote on the wilderness protection.” Later, Chairman McClellan said that because the board had not come to consensus on the issue, they would not make a motion at this time.
John Binkley addressed the board on the subject of proposed amendments to the High Impact Ordinance and the possibility of a motor-cross facility that may be built on agricultural property in the Clarks Chapel community. He recommended that the board amend the ordinance to lower the level of activity allowed under its current exemptions. “It is my opinion that any commercial venture should fall under the high impact ordinance,” he said. “Our request to you is to take a look at reworking the definition and lead into conformity the other parts of the ordinance.” The commissioners recommended that Binkley bring his concerns to the planning board for a more technical review of the ordinance.
Albert Weirick talked about a proposed Viper tower that would be constructed near the Smoky Mountain Welcome Center located south of Franklin on the Georgia Road (Hwy 441). “I request that the board vote to remove their recommendation to put the tower at the visitor center,” he said, “and make their recommendation to put the tower on one of two other sites whose owners have written a letter saying that they would allow the tower to be built on their property. One of them is off of Shope Road and the other is near Carolina Hotel where a tower already exists. Both of the sites would be better because the towers would be less visible. I think the welcome center is an atrocious place to put a Viper tower.”
Weirick added that he intended to organize a public petition on the issue. For more information, call Weirick at (828)369-6062.