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Posted: March 24, 2010 12:30 a.m.

We’ll be fighting waters wars for a while

With all the bad news coming out of the state capitol in recent weeks, it’s tempting to think that Georgia’s legislators have accomplished nothing for this session.

That is not entirely the case. Our lawmakers made some progress on a vital issue last week when they passed the water conservation bill (SB 370) originally proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue. By the time you read this column, Perdue could have already signed the bill into law.

SB 370 is the state’s first serious attempt to take a coordinated approach toward using our water resources more wisely. The bill limits hours of outdoor watering, encourages voluntary conservation programs, and mandates low-flow plumbing fixtures to be installed in newly constructed buildings. It requires state agencies to review their consumption practices and develop incentives to encourage more water conservation.

These are not huge steps and the Legislature should have taken them years ago.

The bill also imposes no restrictions on one of the state’s largest consumers of water, the Georgia Power Co. When you consider that Georgia Power effectively controls the legislative and executive branches of state government, that’s not really a big surprise.

But the bill’s provisions are at least a step in the right direction and the passage of SB 370 could even score some points for Georgia in its negotiations with Florida and Alabama over the withdrawal of water from Lake Lanier.

There was one major issue not addressed by the water bill, however. SB 370 contains no provisions dealing with proposed transfers of water to Metro Atlanta from sources such as Lake Hartwell and Lake Burton in Northeast Georgia, the Flint River basin in South Georgia, or the Coosa River basin in the state’s northwestern corner.

This issue matters because Metro Atlanta, the center of growth in Georgia, has just about reached the limits of what its available water resources can support in terms of new development and construction.

If the business interests in Atlanta cannot regain full access to the water in Lake Lanier, their only real option is to pipe in water from river basins outside the region. That poses a very real threat to water supplies in rural Georgia.

When Rep. Alan Powell (D-Hartwell) tried to offer an amendment to SB 370 to address the inter-basin transfer issue, he was told that no amendments to the bill would be allowed.

Powell and several other North Georgia lawmakers — Reps. Tom McCall, Michael Harden and Stephen Allison — have since introduced a bill that would require a full review and issuance of a permit by the Environmental Protection Division before any water is moved from one river basin to another. The bill probably won’t go very far because the House natural resources committee doesn’t plan to hold any meetings in the near future.

The business community’s interest in water from outside Atlanta was evident when the Georgia Chamber of Commerce issued a statement opposing the inter-basin transfer bill within hours of its introduction.

"This bill creates new regulations and criteria that will not only make that goal (of solving the water problem) more difficult, it will immediately threaten access to water for communities in every region," said Tim Lowe, who chairs the chamber’s environment and energy committee.

Powell contended that draining Lake Hartwell and Lake Burton for the benefit of developers in Metro Atlanta will damage any prospects for growth in Northeast Georgia.

"It’s about fairness to the rural areas of the state," Powell said. "Any water transfers can have a negative impact on economic development (in the Hartwell and Burton regions). It would have an impact downstream of the Savannah River basin to the port of Savannah."

"Pulling that water into other basins isn’t the way to solve the problem," Harden said. "That can be done through conservation."

"Interbasin transfers that are used to supplement systems that haven’t taken care of the water resources within their own basins are not in the best interest of any part of Georgia, especially the donor basin," McCall added.

There aren’t any easy answers to the water dilemma, but legislators should have had the gumption to start addressing the inter-basin transfer issue in this session. If they continue to ignore the issue, the rural areas will be fighting water wars with Metro Atlanta for years to come.

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@capitolimpact.net .

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