Water transfers back before lawmakers
Premium content from Atlanta Business Chronicle – by Dave Williams , Staff Writer
Date: Friday, February 11, 2011, 6:00am EST
The General Assembly soon will take up a new bid by lawmakers from outside of Atlanta to clamp restrictions on a critical water-supply option for the metro region.
A bill introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives Feb. 2 would require the state to consider 22 criteria in determining whether to approve proposed "interbasin transfers," the piping of water from one river basin into another. Identical or similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate the week of Feb. 14.
The debate will renew a dispute that pits non-Atlanta legislators and environmentalists intent on stopping the metro area from raiding river systems across Georgia to fuel the region's rapid growth against Atlanta-area lawmakers and water planners who see barriers to interbasin transfers as a threat to prosperity.
"Metro Atlanta couldn't exist without interbasin transfers," said Jack Dozier, executive director of the Marietta- based Georgia Association of Water Professionals, which represents water utilities throughout the state. "If we make it difficult or impossible to do interbasin transfers, we may be prohibiting parts of the state from economic development."
The two bills would incorporate into Georgia law criteria governing interbasin transfers that have been taken from a statewide water management plan adopted by the General Assembly three years ago.
The criteria call for applicants for interbasin transfers to show that they really need the additional water and have looked for other ways both to increase their water supplies and reduce demand through conservation. The costs and environmental effects of interbasin transfers also would have to be considered, for both the "donor" basin and the "receiving" basin.
Besides appearing in the 2008 water management plan, the criteria also were inserted into Georgia's environmental regulations in a Jan. 26 vote of the state Board of Natural Resources.
But regulations don't carry the weight of state law, said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, the Senate bill's chief sponsor.
"Regulations can be changed at the whim of the [state Environmental Protection Division] director with the consent of the board," he said. "This will give this the force of law."
The bills' supporters also complain that the new regulations only suggest that the EPD consider the criteria in deciding whether to approve interbasin transfers.
Environmental groups across the state pushed unsuccessfully for the Board of Natural Resources to require the EPD to use the criteria in permit decisions. The two bills would include that mandate.
"[The regulations] don't require EPD to do anything," said Joe Cook, executive director of the Rome, Ga.-based Coosa River Basin Initiative. "We need to ask questions before we grant these permits, and we need to mandate those questions."
But opponents point to a provision in the bills that would apply the criteria not only to new interbasin transfers but to proposals to change existing permits. The new EPD regulations only address new permits.
"Interbasin transfers have been used in all parts of the state," said Scott Cole, a lawyer with the environmental practice group of Hall Booth Smith & Slover P.C. "They are a management tool for addressing water shortages."
Sen. Ross Tolleson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment, said putting the criteria governing interbasin transfers into state regulations was a good compromise between leaving them in the water management plan and codifying them into law.
"It has raised the bar on the ability to do interbasin transfers, so it's more protective than it's ever been in the history of the state," said Tolleson, R-Perry. "[But] we've given the flexibility to EPD to make sure we continue to have a healthy business climate in Georgia."
Here are some of the 22 criteria the state would be required to consider before approving interbasin transfers under legislation before the General Assembly:
- The current and reasonably foreseeable future water needs of the donor basin
- Determination of whether or not the applicant's proposed use is reasonable, including consideration of whether the applicant has implemented water conservation practices
- The applicant's effort to explore all reasonable options to meet the needs of the receiving basin
Source: House Bill 134
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