Regional water councils to continue, but no funding for now

After years spent drafting Middle Georgia’s first-ever water use plan, the region’s water council has not met in 2012 or received any state funding, and council members’ terms expired in February.

But as Middle Georgia continues to wither in an exceptional drought, the state is seeking to find a long-term funding source for the council and others like it across the state.

Some water council members say that’s good news. Elmo Richardson, chairman of the Middle Ocmulgee Regional Water Planning Council, has expressed frustration for months about the sudden ending of state support for the much-touted water planning process, which was intended partly to shore up the state’s position in water wars with Alabama and Florida.

“As far as I’m concerned, the Legislature has just turned their back on it,” Richardson said recently. “We spent years putting this (plan) together. Are you going to put it on a shelf and forget it? I hope not.”

Richardson wants the councils to continue, but he says there are too many unanswered questions about what role they will play and how much oversight the state will provide.

“I think it’s important we monitor what communities are doing so there’s no adverse effect on the environment,” said Richardson, a Bibb County commissioner and longtime civil engineer. But the councils don’t have the legal authority to approve or forbid water projects or development decisions, so the involvement of state government is crucial, he said.

In late April, Jud Turner, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, sent a letter to the council chairmen asking them to indicate what base-level activities and funding they need to continue operating until the first major water plan revision in 2016. Turner said he would use this information to pursue long-term funding for the councils.

The regional planning process, which included research and modeling by EPD and extensive assistance from contractors, was funded mostly with federal dollars that are no longer available.

Turner’s letter indicated that although water council members had not been reappointed by the governor, lieutenant governor or speaker of the house, it is “standard practice” for appointed groups to keep operating until new appointments are made. Basically, the council members are still on the (unpaid) job.

Richardson said council chairmen had a conference call with Turner around the first of June to discuss what kind of local and state support there is for the councils, and whether local governments or utilities would be willing to contribute to the cost of keeping them running.

Tony Rojas, the Macon Water Authority director and an active member of the water council, said he hopes to keep serving on the council and thinks it is appropriate for water providers to help foot the bill.

Although the Middle Ocmulgee council has not met this year, some other councils have not been idle. The Coosa-North Georgia Council, the Coastal Council and the Lower Flint-Ochlockonee Council have all held meetings in 2012, said Kevin Chambers, the EPD communications director.

“The agendas were different for each council, but the meetings generally were an opportunity for further discussion of various water issues in each region, including topics related to water plan implementation and funding,” he wrote in an e-mail. “EPD staff attended those meetings to provide assistance as requested by council leadership, but EPD is not providing the same level of support as we did when the councils were developing their plans.”

Richardson and Rojas agreed that the councils could meet less frequently but get together quarterly or when water-related issues arise.

As an example, Rojas said, “Let’s say the drought continues to the end of the summer. It might be nice for us to meet about what we’re required to do under the plan and encourage utilities to follow the plan.”

Rojas also suggested meeting to review new information as it becomes available, such as when a water quality assessment is completed for the river basin.

To help councils make key planning decisions, the EPD was to provide assessments about water quality and quantity in each river basin. However, the Middle Ocmulgee was one of several water planning regions that never received one.

Many of its council members objected. At the time, an EPD contractor indicated the assessment would be finished later.

But it has not been done, said Gail Cowie, an EPD assistant watershed protection branch chief for the Chattahoochee/Flint/Ochlockonee River Basins.

“We had limited funding and set priorities,” she said, adding that the EPD still intends to conduct water quality assessments statewide if it can find the money.

“We’re taking those regional plans as directions for where we set our priorities,” Cowie said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 7444-4225.