By Gerhard Schneibel

The water shortage in metro Atlanta takes precedence over transportation woes, according to Tad Leithead, the chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Transportation and Air Quality Committee and senior vice president of Cousins Properties.

Leithead spoke Feb. 2 to the Sandy Springs Civic Roundtable.

“Big cities have traffic, end of story,” he said. “Other cities have proven that a reasonable amount of traffic is manageable … that you can continue to grow your city, add population and add tax base to your city in a high-traffic environment. … You can’t do it in an environment where you don’t have any water.”

Lake Lanier’s level is rising, but once drought restrictions are lifted, the Army Corps of Engineers will resume operating its water systems at full capacity.

“As soon as the lake recovers — and we’re approaching that level — we get out of emergency, and then they start to let the water out,” he said.

The Corps of Engineers manages water flow from the lake for hydroelectric purposes, but also to float barges downstream and meet federal mandates for protection of endangered species such as sturgeon and mussels.

A legal “battle royale” is being fought over the proper use of Lake Lanier, Leithead said.

“It’s clear that Lake Lanier was built to generate hydroelectric power. It’s clear that it was built to manage flows downstream. But it is not clear — and it is under discussion at the highest levels of court — as to whether Lake Lanier was built to provide a water supply for the city of Atlanta,” he said.

A 1958 law “seems to indicate” that the lake was designed as a water supply for Atlanta, but Alabama and Florida are contesting that claim, Leithead said.

Lake Lanier is hotly contested in part because water supplies are measured using a composite method statewide.

“If Lanier’s empty and all the other lakes in the state are full, and the total aggregate water in all the lakes adds up to an appropriate water supply for the state … then we’ve got enough water,” Leithead said.

Federal regulation prohibits pumping water from one river basin to another, though, rendering the water in those other lakes inaccessible. Rain has to fall on a surface of about 1,000 square miles around Lake Lanier to benefit the Atlanta area, and regulations on building reservoirs are stringent, Leithead said.

“If it’s raining in Atlanta, it’s not doing us any good at all,” he said. “If the city of Atlanta — the region of Atlanta — did not have access to Lake Lanier for water supply purposes, we’d all just have to move, folks. I mean, we don’t have another solution that I know of. So we have to work, lobby and prevail.”