Georgia must embrace a series of "no regret" water conservation standards regardless of the outcome of a looming 2012 deadline that could leave Atlanta with a drastically reduced water supply, a key state water panel concluded Tuesday.
The final report from the Governor's Water Contingency Task Force urged state legislators to tie water conservation requirements to state permits, prods utilities to conduct more audits aimed at reducing leaks and calls on the state to devote more funding to water-efficient rebate programs.
The report also nudges utilities to adopt more aggressive conservation pricing schemes, which penalize bigger water users while benefiting the thriftiest. And it calls for every utility to develop a "real water loss" reduction program aimed at sniffing out leaks and repairing them.
The task force was convened to seek alternative water sources for metro Atlanta after a federal judge ruled in July that it had little legal right to the drinking water from Lake Lanier, the massive federal reservoir that supplies more than 3 million of the city's residents.
The ruling gave Georgia, Alabama and Florida _ the states that have long feuded over the lake _ three years to reach an agreement. If not, the city's access to its main water source could be reduced to the level it was at in the 1970s, when the city's population was just a fraction of what it is now.
The report also concluded that Georgia should not resort to the costly practice of shifting water from one river basin to another. Such interbasin water transfers were criticized not only by environmentalists worried over the potential damage to ecosystems, but by rural Georgia residents concerned about Atlanta's interference with their water supply.
The task force is one part of Georgia's strategy to ease its water woes.
Georgia's best option, say state leaders, is winning a legislative or legal battle that preserves the state's rights to rely on Lanier. To that end, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has hired a former U.S. Solicitor General to lead the high-stakes legal battle and urged Georgia's federal delegation to unite behind a proposal that solves the state's quandary.
Perdue also has tried to jumpstart negotiations between the three leaders of the three states, who emerged from a private meeting in Alabama last week sounding optimistic that they will broker a solution to the dispute before they leave office in a year.
But Georgia's negotiators have also set a sharper tone: Perdue has warned he could step up the offensive by attacking Florida's environmental record and dredging up a 150-year-old Supreme Court ruling that could give Georgia more control over a key river it shares with Alabama.
The report's "no regret" recommendations, though, shift the immediate focus of the water wars to state legislators, who for years have been reluctant to support efforts such as rebates for water-efficient toilets.
In the run-up to the start of the legislative session in January, though, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other GOP leaders have said the Legislature must consider new incentives for conservation. And the task force's leaders said they plan to keep up the pressure.
"Our work is not over," said Tim Lowe, who co-chaired the task force. "In fact, now an even more critical chapter begins. As the Georgia General Assembly convenes in January, we will continue to work with the Governor and elected officials as our recommendations are considered."