Politics & Government

Water transfers would be severely limited under new bills

Identical bills introduced last week in the Georgia House and Senate would severely restrict water and sewer utilities from moving water between river basins, a move that reflects a growing fear that Atlanta will slurp up most of the state’s water supply.

Most Georgia rivers, including the Flint and Ocmulgee in Middle Georgia, trace their source to Atlanta.

A federal judge ruled last year that Lake Lanier was never authorized as a primary water source for Atlanta, and the judge gave the city a few years to persuade Congress to get authorization or find other sources.

“We need to do everything we can to protect our water resources in Middle Georgia,” said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill. “We all know the threat from Atlanta. I don’t think we in Middle Georgia need to sit idly by and let others take our water.”

The bills, House Bill 1301 and Senate Bill 462, would create for the first time a system for permitting and regulating so-called “inter-basin transfers.” Such transfers move drinking water or waste water from a river system or from underground, then allow it to be used elsewhere.

The missing water is not returned. The decision to allow transfers would be much more public under the proposal.

“It’s a tremendous step forward to actually engage in a resource-based analysis of who gets water and why, and how the use of water in one region affects people in other regions,” said Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. The organization acts as a river watchdog for the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers as well.

“I think the bill is an important indicator that people all over the state are recognizing that we need to have a fair and equitable approach to the use of water,” she said.

The proposal already has proved popular among legislators hailing from outside the capital, including five state representatives and three state senators from Middle Georgia who signed onto the bills.

“Politically, there’s a lot of feeling among downstream legislators to just ban transfers outright,” said Gordon Rogers, Flint Riverkeeper. But given the number of communities that already rely on transfers, that’s unrealistic, he said.

About 10 Georgia communities already have inter-basin transfers of more than a million gallons a day, and about 15 more do smaller transfers between basins, said Kevin Farrell, assistant watershed protection branch chief for the state Environmental Protection Division.

Most communities are worried about losing water through transfers out of their basins. The Ocmulgee River, which runs through Macon, actually appears to have more transfers coming in than any other river basin north of the Fall Line, according to a map provided by Rogers. The biggest loser is probably the Chattahoochee.

Not everyone is sold on the bills. Key chairmen of committees dealing with natural resources in the House and Senate did not sign on. The bills must pass those committees to survive. Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, could not be reached Thursday.

And Gov. Sonny Perdue hasn’t thrown his support behind the idea, either.

“The theory of government is, you govern for the whole,” said Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley. “If you took an inter-basin transfer attitude on money, think where that would go. You wouldn’t spend state funds outside the areas where the taxes came from.” And he noted that drainage basins don’t follow political boundaries, which means some county water providers have customers in two different basins.

The new bills would put the EPD in charge of issuing permits for inter-basin transfers and provides a list of dozens of factors to consider in making the decision.

The EPD would examine the potential impacts of transfers downstream and determine whether the reason for the transfer is reasonable, whether all other economically viable options had been considered, and whether the applicant already has implemented “vigorous water conservation practices.”

The long list of factors is too vague, said George Israel, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. He predicted that if the bill becomes law, it would create water supply uncertainty for most of Georgia and open the EPD to lawsuits.

“It also runs counter to the state water plan, which calls for more study of (inter-basin transfers),” Israel said. Overall, he said the chamber is “very, very, very concerned about it.”

Currently, the EPD is required only to issue a news release a week before granting a permit that includes an inter-basin transfer. The agency has started paying more attention to inter-basin transfers in the past few years, basically following the general rule that water transfers should be “not too much, not too far,” Farrell said.

State law already forbids the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District, which encompasses Atlanta, from importing water. However, transfers are allowed within its boundaries among the many basins it straddles. Environmental advocates also argue the district could get around the prohibition by adding more counties.

Rogers pointed out that transfers upstream of the district are still permitted and can benefit Atlanta through a middleman.

Under the bill, permits would be issued for no more than 10 years and would be re-evaluated, with the option to modify them, every five years. Existing permits that include transfers would be reviewed when the permits are renewed.

That could create problems for communities that already rely on a transfer for their water source, observed Elmo Richardson, a Bibb County commissioner and chairman of the regional water planning task force for the Upper Ocmulgee. He said he favors the concept of strict transfer limits.

Rogers questioned why Perdue did not include inter-basin transfer limits in his own conservation bill, which the Georgia House and Senate approved this week in identical versions.

“If he is so serious about conservation and honest negotiations with Alabama and Florida, why not get serious about (inter-basin transfers)?” Rogers asked.

Brantley said the governor’s water conservation bill maintained a narrow focus legislators could support.

“I think there’s more fear about inter-basin transfers than understanding of what they really are,” Brantley said. “The very mention of them sends people into a tizzy. ... It’s almost become taboo to even touch.”

He said Perdue still might support transfer limits, although not a complete ban.

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

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