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When Man Is Endangered

Investor's Business Daily 10/23/2007

Regulation: The burgeoning metro Atlanta area is being hit hard by the severe drought in the Southeast. Is it too much to ask that a few protected species make a sacrifice for humans?

Lying just north of the metropolitan area is Lake Lanier, a man-made reservoir that provides water for a region of 5 million. It was created when the Chattahoochee River, which flows from the North Georgia mountains southward to the Gulf of Mexico, was dammed in the 1950s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which still operates the reservoir.

The lake is at the center of the worst drought the Southeastern U.S. has ever experienced. A severe lack of rain and federal law governing water flow from Lake Lanier have combined to turn parts of Georgia, Alabama and Florida into barren badlands.

Despite some recent and forecasted rain, officials say Lake Lanier's water level is down 10 feet and has less than 80 days of water left to supply a thirsty metropolis.

But the endangered fat three-ridge and threatened purple bankclimber, mussels that live downstream where the Chattahoochee empties into Florida's Chattahoochee-Apalachicola-Flint basin are getting plenty of water, as are Gulf sturgeon. The Army Corps of Engineers makes sure of this by pumping 3 billion gallons of water down the river each day. We're only following federal law, they say.

That would be the 1973 Endangered Species Act. It's the same law that cut off an irrigation project earlier this decade along the California-Oregon border that 1,400 farmers were counting on. In that case it was the coho salmon and suckerfish in the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake that received special treatment.

Certainly there are other interests beyond fish and mussels involved in the Southeastern water fight. The drought's effects go beyond the brown lawns, short showers, dirty cars, parched throats, quick tempers and neighbors turning in neighbors for using too much water.

The Gulf seafood industry wants the Corps to keep the water rolling downstream. Atlanta developers are troubled that the region's growth will suffer due to a lack of water. Anti-development activists are encouraged. Soft drink makers Coca-Cola and Pepsi will have to slow production if they can't get enough of their main ingredient. A coal-fired power plant in Florida needs water from a free-flowing Chattahoochee.

Along the river's path, cities and counties have grown accustomed to the mountain water pouring down from Appalachia. So have farmers. Few of those working the fields and carrying forth in city halls care about the problems upstream in Atlanta but they should, because that metro area is the economic engine for the region and jobs are at stake.

As disparate interests compete, often viciously, for a precious resource, lawmakers from Georgia end up pitted against lawmakers from Alabama and Florida.

Reasonable solutions for these differences can be reached through the political and judicial processes. We're not so sure, though, that the same can be said for problems created by the ESA.

To environmentalists, the law is sacred. Don't expect them to sit by quietly as the Georgia congressional delegation's request to amend the ESA so that species protections can be lifted during emergencies is considered in Washington, or the courts consider the state's request for an injunction against the Corps. Few in the green movement would choose drinking water for humans over living conditions for animals further down the food chain.

But the environmentalists' permission should not be required. Their irrationality clouds what should be a rational process.

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