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Georgia chamber head urges cooperation with water management plan
Georgia Chamber of Commerce president George Israel talks Thursday with The Times’ editorial board about the state’s water management plan. - photo by Tom Reed

The president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce praised the statewide water management plan Thursday, saying it will help Georgia in any negotiations with neighboring states.

"We think there has to be a plan in place if these water wars go to the Supreme Court," said George Israel during a meeting with The Times’ editorial board.

Israel has been traveling around the state trying to encourage the business community to get involved in the regional planning process.

The water plan, approved by the Georgia General Assembly in January, will set up 10 regional water councils with 25 members each, appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House. Each council is supposed to have representatives from a variety of fields, including industry, agriculture and tourism.

Environmental groups would be part of the mix as well, and they’ve expressed displeasure with the water plan, complaining that it gives too much power to the "development industry" and doesn’t emphasize conservation. They were also dismayed that the 10 regional planning districts weren’t drawn along watershed boundaries.

weren’t drawn along watershed boundaries.

But Israel said the watershed approach simply wasn’t practical.

"When you look at how drainage basins split counties, that wouldn’t have worked," he said. "I don’t know how else they could have drawn the districts in order to manage them properly."

Some river basins also extend outside the boundaries of Georgia, and Israel said that creates a management problem.

"We’re going to need cooperation with South Carolina and Alabama," he said. "Though I think we have a better chance of getting help from South Carolina."

He noted that Alabama’s intransigence has been the main roadblock to reaching a water-sharing agreement between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

"I think a lot of it is driven by fear and jealousy," he said. "I don’t think Alabama has the drastic problem they think they’ve got. Their attitude has been, ‘see you in court.’"

The dispute has been going on since the early 1990s, but it received renewed attention as Lake Lanier dropped to record low levels last year.

"I testified before the (state) House and Senate about four years ago about the need for a (water) management plan," Israel said. "The drought has just brought all this home."

He said some people still don’t seem to acknowledge the extreme drought and want to hold somebody responsible for the low lake level.

"Everybody is blaming Atlanta for the water problem," he said. "There’s a tremendous amount of suspicion and animosity toward the metro area, and I think it’s unfounded."

Israel said there’s a perception, especially in South Georgia, that the water plan was created mainly to benefit Atlanta’s economy. He said that’s not true. But the Georgia Chamber of Commerce did have a hand in drafting the document.

"We spent a lot of money, probably $200,000 to $250,000, trying to support what was in this plan," he said. "We were worried they were going to try to rewrite the plan. We lobbied for (the version that passed)."

Israel said he hopes when the details of the plan are hammered out over the next three years, "we can do this without singling out any one type of business. I know some have been adversely affected."

He noted that adjustments were made in the plan to address the concerns of Georgia’s carpet and beverage industries, both major users of water.

He did not mention Gainesville’s poultry industry, which also depends on large amounts of water.

Israel did say it’s important to have agriculture involved in the planning process, even though farms are exempt from restrictions on irrigation.

"We currently have got agriculture at the table, and it’s the first time farmers have been willing to talk about this issue," he said. "They’re (Georgia’s) largest industry, but also our largest water user. If we can keep them at the table, I think this will progress.

"We certainly don’t want to cripple agriculture. They drive our state’s economy. But there are things they could do to voluntarily reduce water usage, and they say they want to be involved."

Israel said he hopes the water plan will make everyone more conscientious about how they use water.

"People upstream need to become aware of what they’re doing to people downstream," he said. "I don’t know that they even think about it now."