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Green groups say Georgia water plan is no plan at all

POSTED: February 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.
TOM REED /The Times

Low water levels are shown earlier this month in a cove near the area where Flat Creek empties into Lake Lanier. Georgia legislators passed a statewide water plan Friday designed to help deal with the ongoing drought.

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The Georgia General Assembly passed a long-awaited statewide water management plan Friday, but environmentalists found no reason to celebrate.

"They’re deeply disappointed, and they feel like they’ve been tricked," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club and several other organizations in the 150-member Georgia Water Coalition.

Over the past two years, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has held town hall meetings in communities throughout the state, including Gainesville, to allow residents to comment on the proposed plan.

The process was required by a 2004 state law, which set a deadline of January 2008 to present a final version of the water plan to the legislature. The act also created the Water Council, comprising selected lawmakers and directors of several state agencies.

One of the key themes echoed by participants at the public meetings was that each of Georgia’s major watersheds should have its own advisory council.

"During the meetings, all of the talk was about river basins," Herring said. "Then in December, (the Water Council) came up with these districts, without any public input."

The plan, as passed on Friday, creates 11 water planning districts drawn partly along political lines. Some of the districts seem almost randomly shaped.

White County, for example, is home to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, the main source of water for Lake Lanier.

Yet the plan places White County in a district with West Georgia’s Tennessee and Coosa rivers.

"Along the entire Chattahoochee basin, there are four different planning councils," said Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

Val Perry, vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, thinks the arrangement only sets the stage for more dissent at a time when the state needs a unified vision for water management.

"If you cut up river basins into different districts, you could end up having mini ‘water wars’ within the state of Georgia," he said.

The plan was immediately and almost universally condemned by communities outside of metro Atlanta. The issue that has triggered the most ire is inter-basin transfers, which would allow withdrawals from one watershed into another.

"Right now, Atlanta has unrestricted power to make inter-basin transfers," Herring said. "Other parts of the state are worried that this could dry up their streams. Rome is especially concerned that too much water will be withdrawn from the Etowah River."

The prospect of losing more water is alarming to cities already suffering from the severe drought. But there’s an environmental aspect as well.

"You have to keep a certain minimum flow in streams in order to maintain (aquatic) life," Herring said. "We’d like for there to be a law that the EPD has to examine the effects of any proposed inter-basin transfers. This plan has no such requirement."

In fact, the plan has no real requirements at all, because even though it was passed by the General Assembly, it is not a law.

"It’s not even a rule. It’s just a policy they had to pass in order to comply with the 2004 law," Herring said.

The resolution passed 39-12 in the Senate, and 131-37 in the House. But then Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, made a motion to reconsider, which will force the House to vote on it again on Jan. 28.

"It’s a procedural glitch," Herring said. "But we hope this will give us time to persuade some legislators to change their minds. I think a lot of them weren’t real confident in this plan but held their noses and voted for it anyway."

He believes many lawmakers felt pressured to vote for the plan, which was strongly supported by Gov. Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker Glenn Richardson and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

State officials could not be reached for comment Monday due to the government holiday.

The plan was also supported by most of Hall County’s legislators. Hall is part of the 16-county Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, which was created in 2001 to protect water resources in metro Atlanta.

That district will remain intact under the new plan. Officials in some South Georgia communities have complained that this gives Atlanta an unfair advantage.

Bethea said the plan allows Atlanta’s growth to continue unchecked.

"There’s not a thing in that plan in the next three years that deals with (water) demand management in Atlanta," she said.

The plan calls for a three-year study to assess how much water is available in Georgia and how it could best be distributed. Perdue has proposed spending $36.5 million over the next three years to collect the data.

What happens after that process is completed is unclear. Perry said he’s frustrated by the noncommittal tone of the document.

"I think the timetable should be much more accelerated than three years," he said. "We needed a water plan, no question. But this is just a plan to make a plan."

Bethea, too, had hoped the document would have some teeth.

"I want to be an optimist," she said. "But if you don’t have specificity with regard to mandates, deadlines, expected outcomes and accountability, you rarely get what you need and what you want."

Herring hopes some legislators will be brave enough to go beyond the plan and introduce bills that could bring about real change on water issues.

"We hope to see that happen this (legislative) session," he said. "If we don’t, then it becomes an election issue. And all of these people are up for re-election this year."



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