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Atlanta’s Water War Is First in a Gathering Flood

Author: Peter R. Orszag
March 20, 2012


Atlanta has always prided itself on its forward-looking perspective. As one business leader put it in the late 1980s, "Atlanta is a city of the future, not the past." Today, however, Atlanta's past is ensnaring it in a nasty conflict over water -- a kind of fight that's likely to be more common in the future.

Atlanta developed as a railroad hub. Since railroads tended to be built on ridges, the city wound up at a place where several ridges intersected, "on the drainage divide between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico," according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As a result, it is the largest city in the U.S. that is not near a major body of water.

Forty miles northeast, however, lies Lake Lanier, created in the 1950s when the Army Corps of Engineers built the Buford Dam. As chronicled in "The Big Thirst," by Charles Fishman, Atlanta refused to finance the dam -- partly because, at the time, it wasn't clear the city would ever need water from Lake Lanier. As Atlanta grew, its need for water from the lake became increasingly obvious.

In 1989, the Corps of Engineers recommended that 20 percent of the water used for hydropower be diverted to Atlanta's water supply. And therein began a war known as the tri-state water dispute.

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