Water plan nixes piping from haves to have-nots

ATLANTA - Georgia is not going to slake the ever-increasing thirst of rapidly growing metro Atlanta by piping water into the region from less populous areas, the state's chief environmental official said Thursday.

A draft version of the first comprehensive statewide water management plan calls for a moratorium on "inter-basin transfers," moving water from a river system where demand is relatively low to another system in a more densely populated area.

State lawmakers representing smaller communities outside of the Atlanta area and environmental advocates have warned for several years that the state plan could give metro water suppliers a way to grab water that small town and rural Georgia need for economic development.

"It's been a hollow issue, an issue we need to set aside," Carol Couch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, told reporters after outlining the draft water plan to a council of legislators and state agency heads. "Let's focus on the real issues and set aside fears about the massive piping of water across the state."

The General Assembly set the planning process in motion three years ago by passing legislation authorizing the EPD to develop a water plan balancing the interests of Georgia's burgeoning population with agricultural and industrial water users.

The bill also created a water council, which received the draft plan from the EPD Thursday and will shape it into the final version to be submitted to the legislature in January.

Lawmakers will be asked to vote up or down on the plan during this winter's session.

With inter-basin transfers off the table, Couch said the water council will be free to concentrate on strategies designed to reduce demand, including stricter water conservation measures, more re-use of treated wastewater and less reliance on septic tanks.

But she said additional water supplies also will be required to keep up with the state's population explosion.

The draft plan calls for building more reservoirs, streamlining a permitting process that now takes up to 14 years.

"With the growth going on in the state, we can't afford that amount of time," Couch said.

Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee and a member of the water council, praised the moratorium on inter-basin transfers. He and other lawmakers representing districts along the Savannah River have long been worried that Atlanta had a covetous eye on their water.

"If there's a human need in an emergency, it may be OK," he said. "But if you've got a water-thirsty industry, why not put it where God located the water?"

While the moratorium would be open-ended, it wouldn't necessarily be permanent. Couch said the prohibition would be linked to stepped-up scientific research that would allow the state to develop criteria for considering proposed inter-basin transfers.

The moratorium also wouldn't affect moving water within the 16-county Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, a grouping of metro counties created by the legislature in 2001.

While environmental advocates following the water planning were generally supportive of the moratorium, they were concerned about encouraging more reservoirs.

"Both (inter-basin transfers and reservoirs) have implications for protecting downstream users," said Julie Mayfield, vice president and general counsel for the Georgia Conservancy. "But reservoirs are much more destructive from an environmental standpoint. They should be the last resort."

Couch said the draft plan agrees with that approach. It would require applicants seeking permits to build reservoirs to show they have done a good job reducing demand through conservation.