Senate expands Flint River protection northward

mlee@macon.comMarch 7, 2013 

ATLANTA -- The state Senate wants to study the upper Flint River’s health as well as the lower river, deciding to add an inspection of industrial and municipal water use above Macon County to a key act, with an aim to helping restore the whole river.

The Flint River Drought Protection Act would cover the entire river from Fulton County to the Florida line under the version of Senate Bill 213, passed 52-1 by the state Senate.

Studying the whole river would be a good practice, more “thorough and comprehensive,” said state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens. He inserted the expansion into the bill as an amendment on the Senate floor. Bill sponsor state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, supported it.

The bill also bans storing surface water in aquifers statewide under an amendment by state Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons. Tolleson objected to that one, saying his bill has nothing to do with encouraging so-called aquifer storage and recovery.

The Senate version of the act calls for tests and studies of water use, including reclassifying water withdrawal permits and figuring how much water is returned to the river by water treatment plants.

There are some properties, Tolleson said, that have a farm water withdrawal permit but are now actually subdivisions.

It also mandates that farmers bring their irrigation systems up to as much as 80 percent efficiency in the coming years, depending on the age and type of irrigation system.

Irrigation efficiency “has come a long way, but we have a long way to go,” Tolleson said.

Some Democrats tried to cut off the last section of the bill, which would allow stream augmentation: pumping water from underground into a river or stream. One federally and locally funded project in southwest Georgia already does that in order to protect an endangered mussel, whose death would bring a federal lawsuit.

That kind of augmentation is a sideshow, not a real fix for a falling Flint, said state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur. But the Senate declined his amendment, leaving the door open to state-funded augmentation.

That is, if it doesn’t get cut off in the House. The bill now moves across the Capitol hallway, where to become law this year it must be approved by the end of the annual session, expected in April.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.

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