SMARR -- The Middle Ocmulgee Regional Water Planning Council approved its plan Wednesday for improving water quantity and quality in the Middle Ocmulgee river basin, which stretches from Newton County south to Pulaski County.
Such regional councils have been working across the state to come up with strategies to help local governments meet their water needs and state regulators make environmental permit decisions.
The council, which met at the GEMC Electric Co-op Training Center, approved minor tweaks to the plan Wednesday in response to public comments. The final revised version must be submitted to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division by Sept. 30.
David Ashley with Jacobs Engineering, a contractor hired by the EPD to guide the council, walked the group through the public comments, recommending few changes.
Council member Tony Bass, president of Super Lawn Technologies in Fort Valley, observed that many of the criticisms were related to the plan’s treatment of natural resources, particularly the health of natural systems and the water needed to sustain them.
For example, several commenters found the plan’s description of wildlife habitat in Middle Georgia too rosy. Ashley said the language used in the plan to describe wildlife in the region came directly from the state Department of Natural Resources.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began its comments by stating that the plans do not protect natural systems, “which is very high and mighty for them to say,” Ashley said during Wednesday’s meeting.
The service was critical of the water plans, saying the plans fail to demonstrate that endangered or threatened species will be protected, don’t use strong or proactive enough language in setting goals, and calculate future water demand without taking conservation savings into account. The service also recommended that the plans “incorporate the realities of new reservoir construction.”
Ashley said, “I interpret that to mean that Fish & Wildlife is not going to give you a permit (to build a new reservoir) if they can help it.”
Council member Larry McSwain responded that new reservoirs probably should be low on the list of options because they take so much time and expense to construct, and thus aren’t a near-term solution. Many council members noted that Middle Georgia doesn’t need new reservoirs like some other regions do.
Wells drying up
The council also spent time discussing the problem of rural residential wells drying up during droughts. Council member John Bembry of Hawkinsville had questioned whether the plan should address this, after he was approached by many neighbors whose wells started going dry in early June.
“Most of the time, it’s a result of poor well construction, and I don’t know that we as Middle Ocmulgee Water Planning Council can address that,” chairman and engineer Elmo Richardson said. “That’s more of a local problem.”
Council members discussed comments from the Atlanta-area water council, which transfers about 100 million gallons of water a day into the Ocmulgee River basin from the Chattahoochee. Georgia is involved in a three-state water war about use of the Chattahoochee. There has been some discussion of halting water systems in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties from transferring water out of the Chattahoochee River basin, at great expense to those counties.
“It almost sounds like they’re asking us for support,” Bass observed. Council members agreed to include language asking that the state consider the impact on the Ocmulgee River basin before ending the transfers.
Council members responded to criticisms from Hawkinsville fish biologist Les Ager, who in written comments had protested that the subcommittee drafting the meat of the plan was stacked with water utility representatives.
“I guess conspiracy theories abound, but this was all out in the open,” Ashley said, noting that council members who weren’t on the committee were invited to attend the meetings -- and some did.
Council member Ben Copeland, of Super Sod in Peach County, said, “I think our group had a more well-informed plan than some councils because of those experts,” who filled in the gaps even as the EPD lagged with information. He added, “We had more water management practices in the plan than councils who have more (water scarcity) than we have.”
Musella peach farmer Robert Dickey, who was elected to the state Legislature since being appointed to the council, asked council members to educate their elected officials about the plan.
“We are very blessed in this region with our water resources, and we need to protect those and leverage those, and not let other areas of the state utilize ours,” he said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.