Georgia’s new water plan applauded, but it has its critics

Many people are applauding the state’s new water conservation plan, now up for public comment, although some critics say it isn’t specific enough and is likely to suffer from lack of funding.

Water planning gained new urgency — and political legs — in the wake of a historic drought that has hit north Georgia hardest in the past several years.

A year ago, the state Legislature set up a framework for regional water planning. The water conservation plan is part of that framework, providing goals and best practices that can be incorporated into the regional plans. Eventually, the conservation plan states that it can be used to form rules to guide the state’s water permitting decisions.

The conservation plan includes guidance for seven major sectors of water users:

Ÿ Agriculture

Ÿ Electricity generation

Ÿ Industrial and commercial

Ÿ Domestic (residential) and nonindustrial

Ÿ Landscaping

Ÿ Golf courses

Ÿ State agencies

These sectors are encouraged to choose the practices most appropriate for their situation. The plan suggests creating incentives for conservation but doesn’t pinpoint funding.

Those two points are the rub for the most vocal conservation advocates.

“Our concern is that this plan is not aggressive enough in terms of having real accountability,” said April Ingle, director of the Georgia River Network. “We’re also concerned about whether there is a real commitment to this on the part of the state, because there is no funding mechanism.”

Shana Uvarde, water program manager for the Georgia Conservancy, said her organization supports the plan, but she voiced the same concerns as Ingle. She also questioned whether all sectors are treated equally in the plan when it comes to their water conservation goals.

The plan includes benchmarks that range from farmers changing irrigation methods to utilities charging higher rates to customers who use the most water.

Some elements of the plan seem only marginally related to conservation. For example, it indicates that by 2010 the state should financially support a public relations campaign “extolling the environmental, sociological and economic benefits of golf.”

A previous conservation plan, the first of its kind, was created by the state Environmental Protection Division in 2004 but shelved in favor of the water planning process that was being crafted by the Legislature.

That original proposal included much more detailed requirements as well as a permanent funding source: a fee on industrial water-use permits, residential and commercial water meters, and even farm irrigation.

Currently, the state issues free farm irrigation permits to anyone who applies for one, and they have no watering limits attached.

Utilities and industries criticized that plan as a “one-size-fits all” approach that “penalized industry for being productive.” Defenders said it had the teeth to make a difference.

Tony Rojas, executive director of the Macon Water Authority, said the current plan is a better one partly because so many stakeholders were involved in crafting it.

“There was more public input this time,” he said. “Before, it was like they were pulling benchmarks out of the air.”

Chris Butts with the Georgia Green Industry Association said his group was “very, very pleased” EPD chose to focus the benchmarks for landscapers and others in horticulture on professional certification “as opposed to legislating practices.”

For example, the plan suggests creating a checklist that master gardeners or cooperative extension agents could use to certify water-efficient landscaping, with a state-funded program that would offer owners rebates as a reward.

Butts said he sees the conservation plan as an advisory document that will be helpful as the state revisits its outdoor watering restrictions this year.

The conservation plan allows regions to tailor rules to the rainfall, water sources and soils of their area, he said.

“There were so many times during drought that we felt (landscapers) were the first place everybody looked,” Butts said. “So we’re definitely happy all sectors will not only be encouraged to conserve but studied and closely monitored.”

The draft plan is available for review and comment at Comments can be submitted through Jan. 31 electronically at that Web site or sent by conventional mail to the attention of Arnetta Murphy, Georgia Environmental Protection Division, 2 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Suite 1152 East Tower, Atlanta, GA 30334.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.