Stay tuned for the next episode of water wars

During the recent House debate on Georgia's controversial water plan, Rep. Lynn Smith kept coming back to the phrase "to be continued" in trying to convince lawmakers to support it.

In other words, if you're worried that the plan will let metro Atlanta raid less-populous communities to take the water necessary to accommodate the region's neverending growth, you can always change it later.

"This plan is a living document," said Smith, R-Newnan, a member of the council of legislators and state agency heads that recommended the plan to the General Assembly. "We are writing it as we go."

But "to be continued" reminded Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, of those two-part television programs that try to lure viewers who watch part one to tune in the next week for part two.

The problem, he said from the House well later in the debate, is that you're always doing something else by the time the next week rolls around and you end up missing that second episode.

"If you think this is going to be continued and you're going to have a chance to fix this, it's the end," said Smyre, who represents one of the communities downstream from metro Atlanta that's most concerned about the water plan.

"You're not going to come back and tweak this. You're not going to have the opportunity."

To Smyre and other lawmakers who voted on the losing side against the plan, it was no coincidence that legislative leaders shoved it through during the first week of this year's session.

With Georgia in the grips of a record-setting drought, voters were clamoring for action.

Although the water plan won't have an immediate effect, it includes water supply strategies and recommendations for reducing demand, both aimed at making sure Georgia has enough water to cope with the next drought.

Having ratified that plan, lawmakers could go home and tell the voters they'll be facing this fall that they've done their part to address a crucial issue.

Reopening the plan to "fix" the concerns of environmental activists and political leaders from outside of metro Atlanta would mess up that tidy scenario. Not that the plan doesn't need fixing, as even some of its supporters have acknowledged.

"It has some weaknesses, and portions of it raise some serious concerns," said Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, who nonetheless voted for it.

In fact, the plan's critics have a list of fixes that could emerge in the form of legislation as the session unfolds.

Their chief concern is the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, the 16-country district created by the legislature in 2001. The plan can't touch the district because it can't change state law.

The sprawling district encompasses the upper portions of five of Georgia's six major river basins, giving it jurisdiction over the water flowing through those systems.

The big fear outside of metro Atlanta is that those counties will use that power to hoard water, either by impounding upstream portions of rivers in new reservoirs or by piping water from one river basin inside the district to another.

"When you move water from one river basin to another, you can damage the community that relies on the river," said Jennette Gayer, an advocate for Environment Georgia.

Gayer said she would like to see legislation with stronger regulations of such inter-basin transfers.

She said another legislative fix could involve redrawing the 11 regional water districts created by the plan to more closely follow river basins. That would mean busting up the metro district so that it doesn't control so many key basins.

Gayer said she also would like to see the General Assembly convert the water plan, which is now essentially a policy statement, into state law. That would give the plan's suggestions for water conservation the force of law.

Gayer concedes that Smyre may be dead on with his warning that lawmakers aren't likely to take up any of these fixes now that they've adopted the water plan.

She said that's why environmental groups like hers are mounting a major effort to convince voters to put pressure on their representatives and senators to reopen the plan.

"The water plan they've passed is not a solution," Gayer said. "We need to start talking about solutions. ... The only way legislators are going to feel they have to do that is for the public to tell them."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.