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A look ahead: Critics doubt water plan

Environmentalists push for more conservation, but legislators might propose extra reservoirs

POSTED: January 14, 2008 5:02 a.m.

A look ahead

 In a series that runs through Saturday, The Times will explore issues and trends that could shape our lives and key areas of the community during 2008. 

Georgia’s drought was the biggest story of 2007, so it’s not surprising that managing Georgia’s water is expected be a key issue in 2008.

A comprehensive statewide water plan, which has been in the works for three years, is supposed to be presented to the Georgia General Assembly on Jan. 14. But that time line may be in jeopardy, as the latest draft of the plan drew bitter opposition from environmentalists and local governments.

Until recently, the proposal would have created water planning councils for each of Georgia’s 14 largest watersheds. But at the last minute, state officials changed the system to 12 regional planning councils based on economic "service delivery regions."

Critics say that approach is impractical and has no scientific basis. They also complain that the current draft of the plan is nothing more than a series of suggestions.

"Something will come out of this (legislative) session that’s labeled a ‘state water plan,’" said Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. "But whether it will contain any enforceable provisions or adequate funding remains to be seen. As of this moment, the plan doesn’t have a dime attached to it."

Some residents, especially in Central and Southern Georgia, are also concerned that the plan would give thirsty Atlanta "interbasin transfers," allowing the city to draw from distant watersheds and return no water to those basins.

"Outside of metro Atlanta, the hot issue is preventing interbasin transfers by Atlanta that could hurt the rest of the state," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.

Legislators may push for more reservoirs

In addition to the water plan, the General Assembly is expected to address future droughts by introducing legislation that would promote the construction of new reservoirs.

Herring said there will probably be a bill that attempts to correct shortcomings in the 1989 Georgia Water Supply Act, which gave the Georgia Department of Natural Resources the authority to initiate and fund regional reservoirs.

Originally, the plan was to build 13 reservoirs. In 1992 the number was reduced to six, and only one project ever received any funding.

"This new bill would give more local control to the building process," Herring said.

Many people have also complained that it takes too long to get a reservoir built, typically at least 10 years.

"Developers and engineering firms are saying they want a bill to speed up the permitting process," Herring said. "But that’s not going to happen unless the (Georgia Environmental Protection Division) hires more people, which the state doesn’t want to do."

Some environmentalists have argued that there wouldn’t be a need for more reservoirs if Georgians would stop using so much water.

"Environmental groups will be pushing for legislation on water conservation," Herring said.

Bethea said she wants to see a combination of incentive programs and "aggressive" mandates to conserve water.

"Though there have been some good actions on the part of local governments (to conserve), most of the suggestions I’ve heard from Atlanta area officials are either to pull water from other watersheds or to build new reservoirs upstream from existing ones," she said.

Many Georgia communities are caught in a paradox, because they’ve been ordered by Gov. Perdue to reduce water consumption, but they depend on their municipal water as a source of revenue.

"Water sales are a cash cow for local governments," Herring said. "And until that issue is dealt with, we’re never going to see meaningful conservation."

If there’s a silver lining to the drought, Bethea said, it’s that at least state leaders are talking about the importance of water.

"I’ve never seen a period of time when so much attention was given to water issues," she said. "There’s a lot of political momentum. But I think this (legislative) session will be all about water quantity, where in the past it’s been more about water quality."

Forest could get scenic designation

Though the drought has overshadowed other environmental issues, the nonprofit group Georgia ForestWatch is still keeping its focus mainly on the Chattahoochee National Forest.

ForestWatch executive director Wayne Jenkins hopes 2008 will be the year they finally get some federal protection for the 13,000-acre Mountaintown roadless area near Ellijay.

"It’s gorgeous. It’s got old-growth forest, and it’s great for (non-motorized) recreation," he said.

During the seven-year planning process for the Chattahoochee’s comprehensive land-management strategy, Mountaintown had been identified as a "wilderness study" area, meaning it was eligible for federal wilderness designation. Though the idea had considerable local support, the Forest Service was reluctant to create a brand-new wilderness area.

In 2006, advocates compromised and sought to have Mountaintown designated by Congress as a National Scenic Area, a somewhat less restrictive category than wilderness. U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Gainesville) introduced a bill to create the scenic area and also to add about 8,000 acres to existing wilderness areas within the Chattahoochee, as recommended in the forest’s management plan.

The bill never made it out of committee. Deal reintroduced the bill in November 2007, deleting the part about the 8,000 acres.

"Perhaps not having the wilderness portion in it will make it more palatable (to legislators)," Jenkins said. "We hope it will be voted on in committee during January or February."

Climate change still not on Georgia’s radar

Other environmentalists hope 2008 will be the year that Georgia officials begin to consider their state’s role in generating global pollution. A number of states have already passed their own initiatives to cut greenhouse emissions, which are believed to be heating up the Earth’s atmosphere.

"Georgia is going in the opposite direction of most other states on climate change," Herring said. "Last year, Georgia legislators held two hearings on whether climate change is real."

Buzz Williams, director of the Chattooga Conservancy in Rabun County, thinks the current drought is not an aberration but a harbinger of more problems to come.

"Georgia has to get rid of its redneck mentality and get with the program on climate change," he said.

Herring believes the lack of concern about climate change reflects the same cavalier attitude that contributed to the state’s water crisis and Atlanta’s air pollution issues.

"Georgia officials are still denying that growth has anything to do with the problems we’re facing now," he said.

Jenkins agrees. "I don’t think Atlanta’s growth has really been looked at as a piece of the (drought) problem," he said.

"And I’m afraid, if Lake Lanier fills back up, our leaders will just put this behind them and say, ‘Crisis over.’"


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