ATLANTA — Even the fractious Georgia Legislature can agree on one thing: The state needs its first water management plan.
On Friday, early in a legislative session defined so far by squabbling within the ruling Republican Party, the House and Senate united to approve the first outline of how the resource should be managed. The
Senate voted 39-12 in favor, while the House passed it 131-37.
The proposal's swift move through the Legislature is evidence of its importance to lawmakers in Georgia, which still suffers from a severe drought despite recent rainfall. The drought forced state leaders to restrict water usage, and prompted Gov. Sonny Perdue to hold a public prayer for rain.
Three years in the making, the water plan must be signed by Perdue before it takes effect.
The plan calls for three years of assessments to measure Georgia's water supply and demand.
Perdue's proposed budget includes $11 million to pay for the tests. It also creates regional water councils to draft water plans for each area.
The plan has faced criticism from environmentalists and others who say the council regions should be based on river basin boundaries instead of political ones. And some rural politicians worry it needs more safeguards to block Atlanta from grabbing a bigger share of the state's water.
"Let's get the water planning regions where the water planning regions should be. And that is where the water is," said DuBose Porter, the House's top Democrat. "Let's do the districts by the water basins themselves ... which is what we've been trying to do for 15 years."
And state Rep. Doug McKillip, D-Athens, contends the plan is at odds with existing law. He and other Democrats said separate proposals are now circulating that could fix the problems. "I'm not trying to sink the boat," he said twice. "I'm trying to right the ship."
But others were more cynical about the chances for those fixes.
"It's the end. You're not going to come back and tweak this," said Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. "You're not going to have the opportunity."
Supporters say the plan, which evolved during dozens of water council hearings and town hall meetings, is the best compromise. Perdue signed legislation calling for it in 2004.
"This is a fearful step forward. I realize that," said Republican state Rep. Lynn Smith, the plan's sponsor. But she said it's a "first step" of a plan that would continue to improve during this session and later ones.
"You're voting on a policy that moves our state forward. It truly is not the end, and it is a 'to be continued,"' she said. "It ain't over until we say it's over."
The speedy approval by the Legislature is particularly telling during this year's session, which is so far marked by a feud between Republican leaders over Perdue's 2007 vetoes. But despite the squabbling, lawmakers agreed there was an urgency to quickly adopt legislation — and tackle other water problems later.
"At the end of the day, we've got to start somewhere," said state Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton. "And this is one of the best beginning points that I know of."