Reservoirs bill passes House on Tuesday

ATLANTA - Legislation expected to spawn a network of new reservoirs to protect Georgia from future droughts sailed through the House on Tuesday.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the reservoirs bill, one of two water-related measures to reach the floor of the lower legislative chamber on the same day.

The second bill, prohibiting local governments from adopting outdoor watering restrictions stricter than the state, also was approved but with more opposition.

The reservoirs bill is designed to speed up construction of new reservoirs and expansion of existing ones by streamlining a permitting process that now requires years to complete.

It would create a new division within the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority, an agency that has funded water and sewer projects for years, to oversee both reservoir permits and the financing of approved projects.

"We're in one of the worst droughts in 100 years ... a drastic problem in need of a long-term solution," said Rep. Mike Coan, R-Lawrenceville, the bill's chief sponsor. "We have to impound more water for our future needs."

Environmental advocates and their allies in the General Assembly have long been concerned that building more reservoirs would result in too much water being held in upstream portions of Georgia's major river systems, restricting flows to downstream communities.

Another fear was that reservoirs could make it easier for water utilities to engage in huge transfers of water between river basins.

But those worries were put to rest when House leaders agreed to add a provision to the bill regulating inter-basin transfers.

The statewide water plan adopted by the legislature in January recommends that state environmental regulators weigh a number of factors before approving any permits for inter-basin transfers. But the water plan does not have the effect of law.

"These conditions will now be codified," said Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, who sponsored the amendment. "It will protect those of us downstream."

The bill, which passed 166-3 and now goes to the Senate, also includes tax incentives to encourage water conservation.

Homeowners and businesses could qualify for tax credits of up to $2,000 for installing low-flow plumbing fixtures.

While Coan's bill encountered little opposition, Rep. Terry England's legislation prohibiting local governments from adopting stronger restrictions on outdoor water use than the state drew fire from lawmakers concerned that it was anti-local control.

The measure pitted representatives of the landscaping and swimming pool industries, which have lost billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the drought, against officials from local governments and water systems.

England, R-Auburn, said there's a need for a standardized set of restrictions rather than a different set of rules for the approximately 800 water utilities doing business in the 61-county area affected by the current drought.

When Gov. Sonny Perdue partially lifted state-imposed outdoor watering restrictions about a month ago, he left it up to local governments in the 61 counties whether to follow suit.

While many did, some left stricter rules in place, creating a hodgepodge of regulations across the northern third of the state.

England's bill passed 124-38 and now moves to the Senate.