As Georgia scrambles to boost its water supply despite a shrinking budget, some lawmakers are suggesting that private companies should build reservoirs and sell water to local governments.
A bill introduced in the state Senate earlier this month would bring the public-private partnership concept, long favored by Gov. Sonny Perdue, to the water supply business. A recent historic drought, followed by a court decision that requires Atlanta to replace its main water source, has brought urgency to the state’s reservoir-building efforts.
Supporters of the Senate bill tout partnerships as a way to expand water supplies faster, at less taxpayer expense.
But some environmental groups warn that the practice could lead to water shortages later, once control of water is in private hands. And some local governments and water authorities protest that the bill would exempt private reservoirs from state requirements meant to safeguard public water supplies.
Mark Wyzalek, environmental compliance manager for the Macon Water Authority, said, “We are all for increasing water supply in the state, but we don’t think private reservoirs should be treated differently from public reservoirs. The way they’re doing it is not a good idea.”
How it would work
The proposal would put the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority in charge of private reservoir location, negotiation, approval and promotion. This would create a totally separate track for private reservoirs than for public ones, which are approved and monitored through the state Environmental Protection Division.
Although the EPD is not mentioned specifically, it would still “have a huge role,” said Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, a co-sponsor of the bill.
“In reality, you’re not going to site a reservoir without the EPD,” said Tolleson, who is chairman of the Senate committee on Natural Resources and the Environment.
The bill calls for GEFA to request reservoir proposals from private companies. Once received, the proposals would open to public comment and a public hearing. Then GEFA would begin negotiations with the two or more most promising companies for a given project.
The bill states that “proprietary information shall not be disclosed to the public” and that repetitive “informal interviews” will be permissible. It does not expressly state anywhere that any part of the negotiations must be made public. GEFA makes the final decision, with input from local governments that are potential customers for the water.
April Ingle, director of the Georgia River Network, said it’s disturbing that negotiations could essentially occur with no elected officials involved and no public participation.
“It should be open the whole way,” agreed Juliet Cohen, an attorney for the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “It is a public resource, after all.”
The bill states that the power of eminent domain would not be delegated to any private company for a reservoir project.
Under the bill, a private company chosen for a reservoir project would reimburse GEFA for expenses related to managing the project. In exchange for this reimbursement, the company would be exempt from some state water supply rules. Those rules limit development around water supply reservoirs, forbid motorized boats and require that any wetlands destroyed be offset by creating new ones.
Wyzalek said the rules are important to ensuring the purity of the water supply. Without them, local governments might have to spend more money on treating the water enough for it to be safe, an internal EPD analysis noted.
Tolleson said he doesn’t want the exemption and had planned to offer an amendment to remove it from the bill at a committee meeting Wednesday. Sen. Chip Pearson, the bill’s sponsor, did not appear for the meeting, and the discussion and vote were postponed until later this week.
Real world issues
The proposal grapples with issues that have already arisen in the state, including private interest in reservoir development and conflicts between current water “partners.”
Before the bill was introduced by Pearson, R-Dawsonville, a $650 million private reservoir had been proposed in his hometown. A water authority there is seeking to partner with a private company to build a reservoir on the Etowah River and sell the water to the city of Atlanta.
Pearson did not return repeated calls for comment.
The Association County Commissioners of Georgia finds the private reservoir proposal promising, said Todd Edwards, the group’s legislative expert for natural resource issues. But he said the group is concerned about some of the details, particularly what might happen if a partnership later dissolves.
“We see this as a possible viable option to work with our friends in the private sector. ... We just have to perfect it,” he said.
Edwards said the proposal raises questions, such as: What would happen if a local government and private company with a long-term water contract cannot agree on a price when it comes time to renew the contract? What would prevent the private company from selling the water to someone else, leaving the government with a drinking water shortage? Such an impasse is happening between local governments in Forsyth County and the city of Cumming right now, he said.
“That has to be examined closely,” he said.
Tolleson readily agreed that the bill needs fine-tuning, and he said he is discussing ways to avoid just this kind of problem.
But Ingle, director of the Georgia River Network, said private control of public water supplies takes the state down the road toward privatizing water again.
Georgia law treats water as the property of all residents, to be managed by the state for the public good. Several years ago, a proposal to allow the trade and sale of water permits failed after a protracted battle in the Legislature because it was seen as privatizing a public resource.
“We think this bill will allow the selling of our public waters and waterways for private gains,” Ingle said.
She said the prospect of private control of Georgia reservoirs is likely to raise alarm in downstream states already involved in water wars with Georgia.
“It’s a bad time,” she said. “Moving forward with this would be detrimental to negotiations with Alabama and Florida.”
But Tolleson said he would not promote a bill that would have a negative effect on the tri-state water war. “I’ve told the Senate that if a bill comes that we can’t agree will have a positive or neutral effect on negotiations, it ain’t gonna move,” he said.
Information from The Associated Press and The Telegraph archives was included in this report.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.