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Jimmy Carter battles plan for dams — again

Jimmy Carter is campaigning against a plan to build three dams to provide water for drought-stricken Georgia — freshly picking a fight he won three decades ago as governor.
Image: Jimmy Carter
Former President Carter speaks June 27 to opponents of new dams along the Flint River at an organizing event in Oglethorpe, Ga.Allen Sullivan / Atlanta Journal Constitution
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former President Carter has spent his golden years as a global humanitarian: a Nobel laureate pushing for peace in the Middle East, speaking out against the war in Iraq and battling to eradicate deadly diseases in Africa and Asia.

So the stage was a little smaller than he's used to when the 83-year-old stood before a squeaky microphone in the farming hamlet of Oglethorpe, assailing a plan to build three dams to provide water for drought-stricken Georgia, freshly picking a fight he won three decades ago as governor.

But there he was, warning the crowd of environmentalists in a calm but insistent tone that they're up against a formidable foe: The promise to "let people sprinkle their lawns seven days a week."

And to some in the crowd, it brought back fond memories of the last stand against the three-dam plan.

It was groundbreaking in the 1970s when a loose environmental coalition — with the help of Carter — managed to stave off the plan to build dams along the Flint River.

Lawmakers, realtors among the players
Now the proposal has resurfaced amid the historic drought, with a familiar cast of characters lining up behind it: Powerful Georgia congressmen, backed by real estate agents and business groups, say the dams could help guarantee water for Georgia for decades to come.

As before, environmental groups in southwest Georgia are banding together to try to stop it. Again, Carter is their most influential supporter, allied anew with the groups he lovingly calls "weirdo environmentalists."

The dams would be built along the Flint, which winds more than 200 miles from the south Atlanta suburbs into the Gulf of Mexico. The river already has two small dams, but Reps. Nathan Deal and Lynn Westmoreland are encouraging the Army Corps of Engineers to complete a study of whether the bigger dams can be built.

"We're afraid sometimes of doing the hard things, we just want to put a Band-Aid on," said Westmoreland, a Republican who represents west Georgia. "This could be more of a permanent fix."

Opponents organized a weeklong paddle ride along the Flint last month that ended with a fish fry on the banks of the river in Oglethorpe. There, organizers announced the creation of the Flint Riverkeepers, a group dedicated to fighting the congressmen's vision.

"Their intent might be honorable, but the impact would be devastating. There wouldn't be a river, it would be a ditch," said Paul DeLoach, the group's director. "It would be the Deal-Westmoreland Ditch. And we can't let that happen."

Tougher battle today
This time, the epic drought conditions may have made the fight even tougher for environmentalists. Atlanta's main water supply, Lake Lanier, is at record low levels and there's no end in sight to the 18-year-old legal battle between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over how much water can be stored in north Georgia lakes.

The effects have reverberated across Georgia, forcing officials to limit outdoor watering throughout the state. Gov. Sonny Perdue held a prayer vigil for rain on the steps of the State Capitol.

That's why Carter's support is instrumental for the group's leaders. And for the ex-president, it's a chance to cement one of the most controversial decisions he made while he was governor.

Georgia's congressmen and both U.S. senators supported damming the river in the 1970s, and delegations from the region came calling, hopeful the construction would create jobs, boost real estate values and create much-needed recreation. The opposition, he said to laughs at the fish fry, was "just a bunch of weirdo environmentalists."

But Carter soon grew concerned that the Corps was underestimating the dams' cost and exaggerating their potential to generate power. He vetoed the project in 1974 and fought off attempts by the state Legislature to skirt his decision.

The plan stayed on the shelf until recently. Deal, who represents a north Georgia district, has said he's drafting legislation to establish the dams, and Westmoreland is pushing for more studies of the river.

"This is about managing your water system, managing your natural resources," Westmoreland said. "We need to do all we can to conserve, we need to do everything we know. At the same time, if there's a solution to manage your river system, why not allow it to be done?

"It has nothing to do with Atlanta or watering your grass. It's just got something to do with looking at the total system and how it can be managed better."

Carter and his supporters are bracing for a bruising fight that could last years.

"We need to start arousing some opposition to let them know this is not a popular thing. You ought to prepare for a massive fight," Carter told the fish-fry crowd. "Because you're up against the promise of employment and recreation and higher land prices — and more water for Atlanta."

Just like it was more than 30 years ago.