Water plan release renews regional rivalries

ATLANTA - One of the biggest turf wars to roil the General Assembly during this decade was over water.

Legislative efforts to launch water supply strategies first for the Atlanta area and later for the rest of Georgia were marked by emotional rhetoric that the rapidly growing metro region was out to grab as much water as it could get from less populous communities downstream.

The heat has been turned down since 2004, when lawmakers authorized the state Environmental Protection Division to start work on Georgia's first comprehensive statewide water management plan.

But with the results of a three-year effort due to emerge this week when the EPD releases the first draft of the plan, the war of words is back on.

"Downstreamers had better be fearful: They have reason to be," Jim Butler, a Columbus lawyer and former member of the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, warned a week ago in a letter published by the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

"This state plan is not about Atlanta," EPD Director Carol Couch shot back. "Every region of Georgia faces serious challenges in identifying a sustainable long-term supply of water."

The need for a statewide water plan has long been apparent. Georgia's population passed 9 million last year and is expected to double in the next quarter century.

Roughly half of those residents live in the Atlanta area, a region hampered with a smaller water supply than most major cities because it's much closer to the headwaters of several major river systems than to their mouths.

The state also has been hit with persistent droughts in recent decades, including 1981, 1986-88, 1998-2002 and the current drought that began last year.

With the potential for water shortages most critical in metro Atlanta, legislative attempts to jump-start water planning began there. The General Assembly passed a bill in 2001 creating the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, which covers 16 counties in the region.

Inter-basin transfers nixed

Key to getting the measure past skeptical lawmakers from outside of the metro region was a provision prohibiting so-called "inter-basin transfers" of water from outside those 16 counties into the district.

For example, the district can't pipe water from either the Savannah River or the lower Chattahoochee River system into the Atlanta area.

Three years later, the bill the legislature passed to begin the statewide water planning process maintained Georgia's ban on buying and selling water-withdrawal permits on the open market.

Permit trading had been included in an earlier version of the measure, prompting an outcry from environmental groups.

Couch said the fears of Butler and others that the new water plan could reverse the prohibitions on long-distance inter-basin transfers and permit trading are unfounded.

"The state water plan cannot alter state law," she said.

But former Rep. Jeff Brown, R-LaGrange, said future lawmakers could change those laws at any time.

He said he's worried that, as the Atlanta area's growing population translates into greater clout in the General Assembly, metro lawmakers will come under pressure to reshape state law to facilitate a water grab.

"We are as protected as the whim of the next legislative session," he said.

Brown said the best way to avoid such a prospect is for the Atlanta region to stretch its current water supplies.

The consensus among environmentalists is that the metro area could be doing a much better job of water conservation.

"There are communities in other parts of the country that have seen tremendous growth yet seen their water use remain the same," said Julie Mayfield, vice president and general counsel for the Georgia Conservancy. "It's because they have strict conservation measures. We know it can be done."

David Word, a planner for the metro water district, said the 16 counties already have made great strides in conserving water.

For example, more than 90 percent of Georgians who live in the district are paying water rates that increase as the customer uses more water, a concept known as conservation pricing.

Word said about the same percentage of the metro district's water customers are served by a utility with an aggressive leak detection program.

"I agree with the concept of metro Atlanta living within its water resources," he said.

Farmers pitching in

Bryan Tolar, spokesman for the Georgia Agribusiness Council, said farmers, too, are doing their share to reduce the amount of water they use.

He said farmers who irrigate their crops have been working with the state for several years to install meters on irrigation wells to keep track of water usage. They're also moving aggressively to install more water-efficient irrigation systems and retrofit existing systems with new technology, he said.

But Tolar said conservation alone isn't going to be enough to ensure that water supplies keep pace with demand. He said Georgia is going to have to build more reservoirs to store the rain that falls during wet periods for use during dry spells.

"Everyone is certainly for water conservation," he said. "But it's foolish not to explore reservoirs ... Nothing should be off the table."

Environmentalists, however, see reservoirs as a last resort because they disrupt the natural flow of rivers, leaving downstream users with less water.

"They're expensive, environmentally destructive and they waste water ... through evaporation," said April Ingle, executive director of the Georgia River Network and spokeswoman for the Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups that helped shape the 2001 and 2004 water legislation.

Couch said more reservoirs are going to be needed to augment the state's water supplies, along with inter-basin transfers in the 143 counties not included in the metro water district.

But she said the water plan will also address the demand side of the equation through conservation and more emphasis on re-use of treated wastewater.

Water council's turn

This week's release of the plan will kick off six months of work by a council of legislators and state agency heads created by the 2004 bill.

Under the timetable established by the law, the water council will develop a final version of the plan for delivery to the General Assembly in January.

Lawmakers' input will be limited to an up or down vote on the plan. However, if they reject the plan and a revised version of the bill allows the council to submit, the legislature could seize control of the process and come up with its own plan.

Mayfield said that possibility is what underlies fears that the plan could turn into a vehicle for promoting growth in the Atlanta area to the detriment of the rest of Georgia.

"The concern is that once this plan gets to the legislature, they'll play fast and loose with it and create their own plan," she said.

But Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, one of the two legislators serving on the water council, said he's determined to avoid lawmakers throwing away three years of comprehensive planning by water experts. He said he will be working to educate his legislative colleagues this summer and fall, to make sure they understand the plan and buy into its proposals.

"The worse thing that could happen is for the legislature to come up with a water policy in the middle of the session," said Tolleson, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. "I think the General Assembly is more responsible than that."