Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board’s Opinion for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

We can’t be sure until the end, but recent, hopeful signs may foretell an end — or at least the beginnings of an end — to the decades-long scuffle over water.

Water supply is a big, if unexciting, issue for Georgia and especially for metro Atlanta — a region whose size is not, for now, matched by its water supply. Fixing that chronic under-abundance will take action and it’s good that Georgia seems to be moving on multiple fronts. It may well help us that Gov. Nathan Deal’s home turf includes embattled Lake Lanier, ground zero in the so-called “water wars.” That may help keep the issue top of mind, which is where it should be.

With less than 18 months left before a federal judge orders the primary water supply for much of Atlanta dialed back to a trickle, our region and state finally have enough solid elements in place to give us a fighting chance of gaining a workable outcome, but likely not an overwhelming victory. This can only happen if we stay committed to carrying out multiple tactics.

It was welcome news that Deal signed an executive order in late January calling for a water supply task force. That may have caused groans in some quarters, given that empaneling experts has often been a way to make it look like government’s doing something when the opposite is actually occurring.

Deal should keep the task force on track toward reaching quick, but thoroughly researched, results. If that doesn’t happen, then Georgians should hold him accountable for achieving the goals set out in his January order. They are simple, yet sufficient. The order reads in part that, “An adequate supply of clean and affordable water is vital to Georgia’s economic well-being and sustaining our high quality of life, and communities across the state face short and long-term water supply challenges.” No water, no progress, in other words.

Deal’s order directs the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to join “at least” five other state agencies in identifying “key challenges” to developing new water supply sources. Their next task is to identify how best to solve the problem.

More importantly, the task force is to come up with options to pay for needed projects. Possible resources include, but are “not limited to,” loans or even direct investments of state money. Assessing costs should more quickly move the process from concept to reality. It will also push the state toward helping pay for work that’s a necessity, not an option.

Fixing this long-brewing crisis won’t be cheap, fast or simple. It will require what state officials labeled a “multi-pronged” strategy as they scrambled for a way forward after U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson’s eye-opener of a ruling in 2009.

Georgia’s cause will be helped if the General Assembly keeps the 2012 day of reckoning in the forefront as they consider the $46 million in bonds in Deal’s proposed state budget, part of $300 million promised over four years for reservoir development. The cost of inaction would be many multiples of $300 million and, by comparison, makes Deal’s plan seem a thrifty investment in the state’s citizens and economy.

It’s too early to say how many new, or expanded, reservoirs are really needed to help address the problem. Carrying out an honest, comprehensive study should yield the best answers.

State officials can’t stop with just a new plan. We must also row harder toward negotiating a settlement with Alabama and Florida. The elections are over, three new governors are in place, and it’s time to reach a treaty on sharing water. Doing so will require compromise all around, but the end result will surely be better than costly litigation and continuing uncertainty that hinders economic growth in this part of the Southeast.

We’ll likely gain more at the negotiating table, too, if we keep pushing to conserve even more water. The Water Stewardship Act passed by the Legislature last year gives us a good start toward creating a “culture of water conservation” in Georgia. We can’t stop there.

It makes sense, as environmental group American Rivers suggests on this page, to set aside a portion of Deal’s proposed reservoir money for further expanding conservation.

We’re also pleased that the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District announced new conservation steps last December aimed at trimming water usage by about 5 percent over the next 30 years.

Atlanta and Georgia have to win on water if we’re to thrive both now and in the future. That will require seeing through to completion the tactics now on the table. We’ve got no other real choice.