House, Senate set for clash over Flint River

mlee@macon.comMarch 22, 2013 

ATLANTA -- After a rushed Friday morning meeting, a House panel passed a version of the Flint River Drought Protection Act that’s quite different from the Senate’s vision of a basin-wide approach to water management.

By a vote of 9-6, the House Agriculture Committee approved a Senate Bill 213 that only looks at the Flint River from roughly Macon County southward, where farms are concentrated.

Both the House and Senate versions mandate smarter farm water use, telling certain farmers to get their irrigation equipment up to 80 percent water efficiency. Farming industry lobbyists are amenable, and it’s included in both versions of the bill.

The bill also sets up rules to allow the state to fund pumping water from wells into the river when it’s low. But the Senate version may also allow state investment in pumping water down into aquifers when water is plentiful.

“In times of severe drought, we have to augment some of the big tributaries ... to keep from losing species,” said state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, presenting his bill to the House panel.

A pilot stream augmentation project has already been built on a Flint tributary in southwest Georgia. It keeps water flowing over an endangered mussel, which is protected by the threat of a federal lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act.

The committee chairman, state Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton, said he thought the mussel ought to be extinct anyway but that augmentation at key times at key places is worth it to keep the federal government out of Georgia.

“We’re disappointed in the (House) bill,” said Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers. He wanted bill-mandated studies about surface water, groundwater and baseline river flows to cover the basin from Fulton County to Florida, rather than just the south portion. A basin-wide approach would include a look at municipal and industrial users above the fall line, and it might mean more water eventually flowing south toward farmers.

Chris Manganiello is policy director for the Athens-based Georgia River Network. By his reading, the bill is written broadly enough to allow potentially costly state investment in not just stream augmentation but also so-called aquifer storage and recovery.

That practice of pumping water down into aquifers for later use has triggered skepticism in the Legislature, which has declared a moratorium on such practices in some locations to keep aquifer water pristine. The Senate bill specifically expands that ban statewide.

A ban could interrupt a $4 million to $5 million pilot ASR project under way with state money in Baker County. It’s managed by a company called ASR Systems, which employs former Environmental Protection Division Director Harold Reheis.

The state Environmental Protection Division supports the House bill, arguing that the Flint will need augmentation, and thus that they need a legal framework to write augmentation rules.

“The Endangered Species Act is not the only reason we’d augment,” said EPD Director Jud Turner. “You’re not going to augment without cost. You’re not going to do that unless you need to.”

Now it’s up to McCall to navigate the bill through the House Rules Committee and a successful floor vote. If that happens, to become law this year, the House and Senate must still come up with a compromise bill by the end of the session to present to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

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