A discussion of state-built reservoirs
A bonanza for speculators?

By David Kyler

There's a troubling tendency for water projects to be exploited for opportunistic land speculation and development schemes.

Reservoirs are promoted as solutions for ensuring water supply needed to sustain Georgia's growing population. Meanwhile major water users - and wasters - are not being held accountable.

Local ordinances may require low-flow toilets and showers in new homes, yet power companies are allowed to literally vaporize hundreds of millions of gallons of water daily, taken from Georgia's rivers to cool high-temperature generators at coal and nuclear plants.

Available new technologies for water-efficient cooling and power production are neglected, as if they don't exist. Despite Georgia's adopting a water conservation program several years ago, there are no requirements for the power industry to take steps to conserve.

In fact, power plants use so much water it's estimated that many Georgians, unknowingly, may use more water at home burning electricity than by drinking, bathing, washing clothes and watering their lawns.

Water squandered is not only a lost opportunity to meet demand of a growing population at comparatively low cost, but it can be a train-wreck for the environment. It is a travesty for both nature and taxpayers when reservoirs are built to increase water supply while enormous amounts of water are being wasted.

Clearing land to build reservoirs may remove hundreds of acres of native forests, causing both temporary and long-term erosion (thus degrading water quality and fish habitat). And it can permanently reduce the flow of rivers downstream from reservoirs by increasing evaporation losses. Intensive development around these water bodies causes still more loss of native vegetation, wildlife habitat and water quality.

Yet, man-made lakes - reservoirs by another name - have become great sources of private profit-making. Land previously valued at less than $10,000 an acre may be worth 10 or 20 times that much once a body of water is made available nearby.

Those who have influence over decisions about when and where to build reservoirs are in a position to gain huge financial payouts. When public funds are used to finance reservoirs - helped by a bill passed in last year's General Assembly - enormous profits can be grabbed by a few private investors while ordinary taxpayers unwittingly foot the bill.

Land speculation has a recurring yet curiously overlooked downside. As land surrounding reservoirs is subdivided and sold for quick profits, a given piece of property may change hands many times before it's occupied, ramping up demand and prices until the market eventually collapses. Speculators holding land when the collapse occurs, as well as the banks that made loans to them, can suffer huge financial losses.

Unfortunately, such penalties spread throughout the local and regional economy, harming many who never had anything to do with real-estate deals.

Largely as a result of policies that unwisely encourage development speculation, Georgia in recent years has had more bank failures than any other state, and often leads the nation in property foreclosures.

It is no coincidence that Georgians are ranked the least financially secure of all U.S. citizens. Reckless policies supporting speculation and irresponsible use of natural resources deprive Georgians of greater control over their communities and their own income sources.

What this amounts to is subsidizing dicey business practices and unjustified exploitation - whether water-intensive power production or over-leveraged land deals - at the public's expense.

Worse yet, those who benefit the most from such practices may have their financial risks greatly reduced by taxpayer bailouts of one kind or another.

The true consequences of these policies are seldom evaluated, either before or after the ill-considered legislation creating them is passed. In the absence of transparency and accountability, the cycle repeats itself.

If Georgia is to safeguard the interests of all citizens, unfair provisions benefitting the privileged few, whatever the pretext, must be eliminated.

David Kyler is executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast on Saint Simons Island, Georgia.
^ Top