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Political fix to water crisis remains elusive

POSTED: February 14, 2008 5:03 a.m.

While water, and the lack of it, has been a hot topic for Georgia lawmakers in both Atlanta and Washington, they admit that there is not much they can do to alleviate the current situation.

The Georgia General Assembly swiftly, and without fanfare, approved the state's new water management plan in the early days of this year's session. The task of implementing the plan falls largely to the regional water planning districts.

The Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, of which Hall County is a member, has been in place since 2001. The district includes 16 counties and 95 cities within the metro Atlanta region where more than 4 million people, nearly half the state's population, live.

Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, is chairwoman of the water planning board. She said the Metropolitan North Georgia district has a six-year head start on others that have yet to be appointed.

"That was by choice, because they took the most populous area to do to show that we are in the water management business," Dunlap said. "Ideally, it would be better if we (the entire state) had all done this at the same time. Our district had a lot of input on the state plan and agrees with it."

Dunlap said programs, such as incentives for retrofitting older homes with more efficient water appliances such as toilets, will be a significant step in reducing water usage.

"It's a part of the game," she said. "Residential customers use more water than all of our users by percentage. We've got to do something and retrofitting is a part of the conservation plan. We're going to have to get used to conservation, not just in this drought. Water conservation is going to be needed forever."

One of the major dilemmas facing the metro district is supply. According to studies, Atlanta has the smallest river system of any major metro area in the United States.

"If you look at what happened out west and you look at our population growth, we have to plan. Our water resources are very small for a state this size and growing as it is," Dunlap said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue is proposing a total of $120 million in funding for water infrastructure and reservoirs. Perdue is proposing an initial $11 million in existing resources to fully fund both the resource assessments and regional planning components of the water plan.

But in his State of the State address last month, Perdue recognized that reservoirs are not an instant cure. "I want to caution that this is not a silver bullet," Perdue said. "More room for storage will not make the rains come."

Reservoirs will require federal approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The newest reservoir is nearing completion near Canton and the state of Alabama has filed suit in federal court seeking to block it.

It is a dispute over a reservoir on the Tallapoosa River, near the Georgia-Alabama line that sparked the beginning of the dispute between Alabama and Georgia over water. Florida later joined the fight and the three states have struggled for 18 years to find a solution.

Perdue and his counterparts from Florida and Alabama met in December in Tallahassee, Fla., in a second session aimed at resolving the crisis. Technical experts met in January in West Virginia to continue ironing out an agreement.

U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who intervened for the White House in November, has set Feb. 15 as a deadline for resolving the tri-state dispute. Perdue has called that time frame "optimistic."

The governor also made it clear that he is not going to surrender the state's water. "We will respect the resources that we share with our neighbors," Perdue said in his State of the State message. "But hear me now - we will not allow others outside this state to hamper our progress by limiting our access to the waters that fall on our land. That will not happen on this governor's watch."

Also under the gold dome, there are efforts on behalf of the state's swimming pool and horticulture industries to loosen some restrictions.

A positive move in the water situation took place earlier this week when Secretary of the Army Pete Geren informed Georgia's federal lawmakers that work would begin on the water control plans and manuals for the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

Geren said writing the new manuals will take three years. Portions of the current operating manuals have not been updated since the opening of Lake Lanier in 1957.



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