Council set to vote this week on water plan

ATLANTA - For decades, political and business leaders outside Atlanta have watched uneasily as the metro area grew by leaps and bounds, adding subdivisions faster than seemed reasonable for a region dependent upon a narrow river for most of its water.

Finally, in the middle of the last drought, state officials began laying the groundwork for a statewide water management plan that would ensure an adequate supply of clean water for all Georgians.

But as a council of state agency heads and lawmakers prepares to vote this week on the plan it will deliver to the General Assembly next month, the fear is that the plan will become a vehicle for the metro region to suck the rest of Georgia dry.

"The purpose of the statewide water plan is to identify where within Georgia metro Atlanta can get additional water to fuel its continued unbridled growth," Jim Butler, a Columbus lawyer and former member of the state Board of Natural Resources, wrote in an e-mail last week.

But metro Atlanta leaders say the notion that they are out to protect their interests at all costs is a misperception. They say their region can't succeed without the rest of the state.

"This isn't an Atlanta plan. It's a Georgia plan," said Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, who also serves as chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission. "We need a win for the entire state."

Old fault lines

Tussles between the metro region and the rest of Georgia over money and other finite resources are nothing new. The "two Georgias" have long battled over funding allocations for roads and schools.

But water has come to the forefront only as it's become a scarcer commodity in a state accustomed to plentiful rainfall.

"This wouldn't be such a debated issue if we weren't in such a severe drought," said Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, one of four lawmakers on the Georgia Water Council.

Indeed, it was during the 1998-2002 drought that the water plan began to take shape.

A legislative study committee formed during those years developed the bill that led to creation of the water council in 2004.

The legislation gave the Georgia Environmental Protection Division three years to craft a plan for presentation to the council.

If the panel approves the plan this week, as expected, it will be submitted to the legislature next month for an up-or-down vote.

The plan includes a series of strategies aimed at ensuring both adequate water supplies and acceptable water quality.

To make sure there's enough water, it contemplates building reservoirs, transferring water within and between river basins and more cutting-edge technologies like desalination.

To reduce demand, the plan calls for aggressive water conservation measures.

To protect water quality, it advocates setting tougher standards on bacteria, such as fecal coliform, and for dissolved oxygen.

Law intact

What the plan doesn't do is change anything in Georgia law, a fact supporters have cited repeatedly to try to relieve worries that it's going to set the stage for a water grab by Atlanta.

EPD Director Carol Couch said that means the plan can't change the 2001 state law that created the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. The law prohibits any interbasin transfers from outside of the district's 16 metro counties.

"(The metro district) is not afforded special treatment," she said. "It has to follow the same water policies as the rest of the state."

But environmental advocates say the plan's inability to change state law has a down side as well.

April Ingle, executive director of the Athens-based Georgia River Network, said the plan has no ability to require the positive steps it envisions, including water conservation.

"It's just a plan to make a plan," she said. "It's not enforceable ... because it has to stay within the confines of current law."

The plan's critics also are concerned about some of the changes the water council has approved in the document during the last few weeks.

One change that has drawn a lot of fire is a decision to draw the regional water planning districts the statewide plans advocates along existing "service delivery" lines.

"Let's not create a new way of slicing up the state," Couch said. "Let's work along the lines that regional economic development is already conducted."

Watershed planning

But opponents point out such an arrangement would carve up some major river systems among several regional districts, making the process unwieldy.

"The original language said these plans should be designed basin by basin," said Jill Johnson, interim executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters. "This planning needs to be done along watershed boundaries."

Johnson said she's also concerned about funding.

Couch has given Gov. Sonny Perdue a price tag of about $36 million to carry out the plan, to be phased in during the next three fiscal years.

"That's not enough to get the job done," Johnson said. "It pales in comparison to what other states have spent."

Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, said he understands the criticism surrounding the water plan.

Thomas, who has become the point man for House Democrats on environmental issues, said he agrees that the plan needs more teeth.

"I want to see mandatory conservation," he said. "(But) it's all, you 'should' and you 'may.'"

However, with all of its shortcomings, Thomas said having a water plan in place represents the best safety net Georgians outside metro Atlanta could have to make sure their worst fears aren't realized.

"Developing a good plan probably will end up being a limiting factor on growth," he said. "Without a plan, there's nothing to stop Atlanta from sucking all the water away."