Regional water planning council kicks off

Although the agenda was bland, the questions were pointed at the first meeting of the Middle Ocmulgee regional water planning council, which met Thursday in Macon.

The 10 regional councils, plus the existing Atlanta-area planning district, are the cornerstone of the state’s new water planning process. They are charged with creating regional water development and conservation plans for each of Georgia’s major river basins. The plans are supposed to protect water quality and quantity, based on forecasts of future water and wastewater needs.

But the impact of the plans could be much broader. The state Environmental Protection Division will use the plans as a basis for issuing or rejecting permits needed by cities or counties wanting to drill new wells or build new reservoirs, said David Ashley, project manager for Atlanta-based engineering firm Jordan Jones & Goulding. JJ&G will be coordinating the regional council meetings for the EPD.

Les Ager of Hawkinsville, a retired fisheries supervisor with the state Department of Natural Resources, isn’t on the council but attended the meeting because “the availability of water is going to be the driving force for population growth throughout the state, and this process is basically going to determine who has water,” he said.

The Middle Ocmulgee Council consists of about 25 representatives, chosen by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House.

They hail from Newton County south to Pulaski County, the span of the Middle Ocmulgee region as defined by the state.

Thursday’s all-day event at the Amerson Water Treatment Plant was designed to set ground rules for how the Middle Ocmulgee Council will operate and how it will coordinate with the state.

Council members questioned how much control they actually have over the regional water plan, given that the final version can be vetoed or changed by the state Environmental Protection Division.

“It sounds like we’re just a rubber stamp,” said Robert Ray of Fort Valley, saying he feared the needs of farming areas wouldn’t receive enough consideration.

“I don’t think at all that EPD has any upfront vision of how these things are going to look,” replied Kevin Farrell, assistant branch chief for the EPD watershed protection branch.

However, the EPD could send the plan back to the council for revisions as many as three times, Ashley said.

The building blocks for the council’s decisions will be a series of statistical reports being compiled by the University of Georgia and EPD contractors.

County-by-county population and employment forecasts are expected to be ready next week, Ashley said.

EPD contractors will be assessing water quality and availability at the local level. UGA also will be predicting land use changes and estimating irrigation demand by county.

“This will be the first truly comprehensive look at statewide agricultural water use in the state,” Ashley said.

The statistical reports will be shared with the regional councils for comment before being finalized, Ashley said.

This prompted a number of questions. Jim Ham, a Monroe County commissioner and cattle farmer, asked: If local governments dispute the forecasts, who has the final say? Farrell said in the end it will be up to the EPD and UGA.

Ager protested that the forecasts should be made widely available to the public before they are finalized.

Farrell said the EPD wouldn’t put them online, but Ashley acknowledged they will be available under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Council member John Bembry of Hawkinsville questioned using growth predictions as a basis for water plans, saying the order should be reversed: The water plans should determine where growth occurs.

Farrell said the EPD supports that outcome.

The Middle Ocmulgee Council was the last of the state’s 10 new regional water councils to hold its opening meeting, Ashley said.

One of the duties of the regional water councils is to create a public involvement plan.

Ager said he thinks the state and JJ&G have so far done a poor job of encouraging public participation, noting that the meeting location was hard to find and its entrance is behind a locked gate.

Elmo Richardson, a retired engineer who is a Bibb County commissioner, was elected chairman of the Middle Ocmulgee Council. Ben Copeland, vice president of Super-Sod in Peach County, was elected vice chairman.

Ashley said the councils will meet quarterly, although their next meeting will probably be held in about a month.

Information from the Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.