ATLANTA - Half of the equation is a no-brainer.
Everyone involved in crafting Georgia's first comprehensive statewide water management plan, inside and outside of government, agrees that reducing demand through stepped up conservation must be the top priority.
It's the supply side that's going to be sticky.
Environmental advocates don't like most of the options. Local governments, which operate most water and sewer systems, don't want to end up stuck with the bill.
But by the middle of next year, the state must by law have a strategy in place for accommodating rapid growth without draining Georgia's rivers and streams dry.
"We need new water supplies," Carol Couch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, told the House and Senate natural resources committees last week. "There's no evidence it can be gotten without a great deal of conflict throughout the state."
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2004 giving the EPD three years to develop a water plan and submit a first draft to a council of state agency heads with jurisdiction over water policy.
The Georgia Water Council received the draft in late June and has been working on changes that will be voted on this week.
That revised draft will be the subject of a series of public hearings next month across the state.
A final draft will go the legislature in January for an up-or-down vote.
If lawmakers don't like what's in it, they can either develop an alternative of their own or ask the council to come up with another plan.
Whatever emerges from that process will take effect next July 1.
Growth outstripping supply
What drove lawmakers to act were some alarming numbers. Georgia's population of 9 million is expected to double in the next 25 years.
Making it worse is that most of the growth is coming in metro Atlanta, where the water comes from a series of narrow rivers that don't broaden out until much farther downstream.
The water plan contains a broad array of approaches for dealing with both the water quantity and water quality problems that rapid development have thrust upon Georgia.
They vary from decades-old technology to methods that have yet to be tried here.
Among the options are:
' building more reservoirs like lakes Lanier and Allatoona, which provided abundant supplies of water by damming up the narrow Chattahoochee and Etowah rivers
' allowing more inter-basin transfers, which move water from river systems where demand is lower to rivers in areas with higher populations
' aquifer storage and recovery, a technology that involves injecting surface water into underground aquifers during wet periods for recovery during times of drought
' desalination, which involves removing the salt from sea water, a technology now in use around the world but never tried in Georgia
' pollution allocation trading, which would allow cities and industries to exceed their pollution limits by trading for credits as long as overall pollution within a river system remains within acceptable levels
' septic tanks and sewage spray fields, which have been used for years to minimize water pollution, particularly in rural areas.
All have drawn objections from various groups following the progress of the water plan.
Environmentalists have long criticized septic systems as outmoded and an easy way out for developers looking to spread growth faster than cities can build less polluting central sewers.
The proliferation of septic tanks in subdivisions on the outer edges of metro Atlanta also worries lawmakers from downstream districts.
"I'm very concerned about consumptive use, the amount of water you take out versus what you put back," said Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, a member of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. "That kind of system mines the water."
On the other end of the technology scale, environmental groups are wary of untried alternatives that don't have a track record in Georgia.
That includes not only desalination but aquifer storage and recovery. ASR became such a hot topic in the early 1990s, when some legislators expressed interest in importing it from Florida, that the General Assembly passed a law prohibiting its use in the 24-county coastal region.
While the trading of pollution credits isn't a new concept when it comes to air pollution, the concept hasn't been tested as much for water pollution.
Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said there aren't many success stories for it around the country.
Bethea said it's inappropriate to put such specific options in a water plan that otherwise deals with broad policies.
"Everything else gets the 30,000-foot flyover treatment," she said. "Suddenly, we're floating all these untried technologies in this state. If EPD wants to study them, fine. But we don't think they have a place in this plan."
While environmentalists also don't like the way reservoirs disrupt the natural flow of rivers, they can't argue that they haven't been around.
"We already have major reservoirs in most of our rivers and streams," Couch said. "(But) we need more."
Couch said the state has to find a way to speed up the approval process for reservoirs, which now take eight to 14 years to bring on line.
Inter-basin transfers also are on the scene now, on a small scale.
But downstream lawmakers' fears of larger transfers prompted the General Assembly earlier this decade to prohibit the movement of water into metro Atlanta from outside of the region, limiting that option.
Couch assured downstream lawmakers last week that the fast-growing metro counties will be subject to the restrictions likely to find their way into the water plan, even though 16 metro counties already have formed a regional water planning district of their own.
"The question is how that compliance will take place when the metro district is a legal entity with some authority," said Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lawrenceville, who has become a point person for House Democrats on environmental issues.
"The metro district crosses over six river basins. How that will play out is on everybody's mind."
With controversy likely to surround whatever the EPD and water council decide to pursue, local governments are worried that lawmakers will be reluctant to put up the $30 million Couch has said will be needed to put the water plan into effect.
Tom Gehl of the Georgia Municipal Association said if that happens, local governments could get stuck with the bill through an increase in the water and sewer permit fees they pay.
"This is a statewide effort," he said. "The state should put its resources into it."
Bethea agreed that local governments and industries shouldn't have to pay more than their fair share of the plan's costs. But she said financial squabbling can't be allowed to slow down the process.
"We can't wait until some point in the future," she said. "This work has got to be done."
SideBar: If you go
Here is the schedule for the first round of public hearings the Georgia Water Council will hold on a draft version of the plan:
' Oct. 15 - Fort Valley State University, Pettigrew Center, Fort Valley
' Oct. 15 - Georgia Southern University, Neesmith Lane Building, Statesboro
' Oct. 15 - Augusta Technical College, Information Technology Center, Augusta
' Oct. 16 - Gainesville State College, Continuing Education Building, Oakwood
' Oct. 16 - Albany State University,
Criminal Justice Building, Albany
' Oct. 17 - Armstrong Atlantic State University, Armstrong Center Auditorium, Savannah
' Oct. 17 - Okefenokee Technical College, Miller Lecture Hall,
' Oct. 18 - The Forum, Rome
' Oct. 18 - University of Georgia, Center for Continuing Education, Athens
' Oct. 19 - James H. Rainwater Conference Center, Valdosta
' Oct. 19 - Columbus State University, Elizabeth Bradley Turner Center, Columbus
' Oct. 19 - Atlanta Technical College, Cleveland L. Dennard Building, Atlanta
Water Plan Timeline
Here is the schedule of activities for the Georgia Water Council leading up to its delivery of a statewide water management plan to the General Assembly:
' Sept. 20 - Water council meets to vote on changes to first draft of water plan
' Oct. 1 - 30-day comment period begins
' Oct. 15-19 - First round of public hearings
' Nov. 2 - Revised plan goes to water council
' Nov. 9 - Water council meets to review revised plan
' Nov. 16 - 15-day public comment period begins on second draft of water plan
' Nov. 26-30 - Second round of public hearings
' Dec. 13 - Final draft goes to water council
' Dec. 21 - Water council meets to adopt water plan
Source: Georgia Water Council