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A worse drought?

North Georgia growth has major impact

POSTED: February 13, 2008 5:03 a.m.

A former director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division warned Friday that the state should be prepared for an even more devastating drought.

"There will be a worse drought," said Harold Reheis, who served as EPD director from 1991 to 2003. "I don’t know if it will be 10 years from now or 100 years, but it’s coming."

Reheis, who is now senior vice president of the Joe Tanner & Associates consulting firm in Atlanta, spoke Friday during a forum at the Georgia Mountains Center. About 125 people attended the event, which was sponsored by the Council for Quality Growth, a policy group that promotes "balanced and responsible" development in metro Atlanta.

Reheis briefed the audience on Georgia’s comprehensive statewide water management plan, which was approved Jan. 22 by the General Assembly and awaits Gov. Perdue’s signature.

Wade Beavers, chairman of the Council for Quality Growth, said the decision to hold the seminar in Gainesville was not arbitrary.

"We’re doing this in Hall County because we recognize that Lake Lanier is ground zero for the water crisis," he said.

Kit Dunlap, who serves both as president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the 16-county Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, said she didn’t anticipate such a dire situation when she became involved in the water planning process.

"The drought has brought the need for water management and water conservation to a much higher level," she said.

The new plan keeps the metro district intact and creates 10 new regional planning districts throughout the state.

Reheis said he hopes the comprehensive plan will reduce the "paranoia" that the rest of Georgia seems to have about metro Atlanta. Some people accuse Atlanta of consuming more than its share of water.

"I hope there will be less whining, once all the facts are out there about how much water metro Atlanta actually uses," Reheis said.

He pointed out that Georgia law does not allow a community to withdraw so much water that it dries up a stream.

"Folks downstream need water, too," he said. "Some of our neighbor states don’t have that policy. Some of those states don’t regulate water withdrawal at all."

He said in Georgia, a municipal water source must be reliable enough to yield water even during a "drought of record." The state’s current drought is the new drought of record, so it is the standard by which new water sources will be measured.

"You’re going to have to build more and bigger reservoirs in the future," Reheis said.

He said the water plan itself is not a law and does not change any existing law. But he predicts some legislation will be passed to enforce certain aspects of the plan.

And he believes local governments will bear the burden of implementation. "They’re the ones who have to pay the money to upgrade water and sewer systems," he said.

Carol Couch, the current EPD director, has said the plan will require about $36.5 million to study the state’s major watersheds during the next three years. But Perdue didn’t include any money for the plan in his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Jason O’Rouke, a policy analyst with the Council for Quality Growth, said that’s an issue that needs to be resolved. "We remain adamant that this plan must be fully funded by the state," he said. "We cannot have another unfunded mandate."

Reheis said people should be realistic about what the water plan can do. It won’t, for example, settle the 17-year "water war" between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

"This state water plan isn’t going to magically fix that," he said.

Nor, he said, will the plan stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from releasing water out of Buford Dam to benefit endangered mussels near the Gulf of Mexico.

"That’s not going to go away," he said. "In 2008, there will continue to be significant releases from Lake Lanier."

Perhaps disappointing some developers, Reheis added that the water plan will not eliminate state requirements for stream buffers, and it won’t make the buffers any smaller.

He said developers should expect that they’ll need to take "aggressive" water conservation measures in any new building or development.

"I wish I had done a better job on water conservation when I was at EPD," he said.

But Reheis said he liked the council’s practical, reasonable approach to development.

"I started being influenced by the Council for Quality Growth years ago," he said. "Believe it or not, EPD doesn’t have all the good ideas."



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