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Water supply task force focuses on new construction
Environmental groups say plan ignores funding for conservation projects
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ATLANTA — A draft plan that seeks to use some $300 million in state money over the next four years focuses mostly on new reservoirs and wells to achieve water security in Georgia.

The plan, drafted by a state Water Supply Task Force formed by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year from leaders of key state agencies, includes the possibility for the state to directly invest in local or regional water supply projects and lease facilities back to local governments who couldn’t afford them.

It also includes restructuring an existing state loan program for water supply infrastructure and allows the state to help local governments join private entities to fund water supply projects.

The plan was outlined Wednesday in a meeting of the Water Supply Task Force in Atlanta. It is available for public comment until Dec. 5.

When the public comment period ends, a final plan will go before the task force, then be sent to the governor for approval.

Deal, in a January executive order, charged the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority with creating the task force to assist local governments with meeting future water needs.

The order was the governor's effort at expanding the state's water supply while also battling Alabama and Florida over shared water that flows from Lake Lanier and Lake Allatoona.

The plan seeks to encourage regional water supply projects over isolated local ones.

It also allows the state's Department of Community Affairs to issue annual bonds to pay for all or parts of water supply projects. It was this offer that drew the plan's first critics Wednesday.

While the state would pay for reservoir projects, in whole or in part, it would not use money to fund a water conservation project.

Environmental and water advocacy groups, who have long argued the fiscal feasibility of conservation projects over the construction of new reservoirs, immediately cried foul over the plan. 

Jeannette Gayer, advocate for Environment Georgia said the plan "stacks the deck" against projects that might encourage water conservation. Kevin Clark, executive director of GEFA, disagreed, noting the state has money ready to lend local governments for conservation projects.

But Gayer argued the plan provides incentives for new construction above all else.

"I don't think it's a shocker that local governments are more interested in getting grants over loans," Gayer said.

The decision to only make direct investments in construction projects has to do more with the state's ability to claim ownership over the assets, Clark said.

As rules for bonds go, the state would have to own whatever it paid for using those bond revenues, officials said Wednesday. Claiming ownership of an asset involved in a water conservation project, he said, would be more difficult.

"I think all of us wish these were grant dollars, but they are not. These are (general obligation) bond dollars, and with that we have certain requirements, certain limitations. ... The direct state investment, the state has to own that interest," Clark said. "Pragmatically, we struggle with how does the state take that direct ownership interest in certain conservation projects. I don't think those projects lend themselves to feasible investment opportunities."

Water conservation projects often include replacing leaky pipes underground that cause local authorities to lose water before they can use it. Gayer argued the state could purchase those pipes from local water providers.

But Clark said such a move would not be feasible.

"Pragmatically, we think there are going to be very few governments that are going to want us to own their water distribution system," Clark said. "And that's it in a nutshell.

"We don't believe that ... being advocates of water supply you are automatically viewed as a naysayer of conservation. ... It's a two-pronged attack, and that's what we're doing."

If approved, the plan would modify an existing state loan program administered through GEFA, allowing local governments to take as many as 40 years to pay off the low-interest loans. Currently, the limit on paying off those loans is 20 years.

Another provision in the draft plan makes GEFA available to advise governments seeking to enter into a partnership with a private entity seeking to help pay for a water supply project. In those cases, GEFA could provide legal and financial advice for those arrangements.

The public can submit comments to the draft plan online.