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Drought concerns dominate water plan hearing

By Dave Williams

dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com

OAKWOOD - Landscapers are being forced to lay off workers, while homeowners lucky enough to own wells can water their yards at will.

Those are among the effects of the brutal drought gripping North Georgia aired during a public hearing on Tuesday night at Gainesville State College.

Although the topic was supposed to be long-term water planning, it was the current crisis of the moment posed by the drought that captured much of the attention.

Farmers, landscapers and people who live on, or near, depleted Lake Lanier told an audience of about 130 how the lack of rain is affecting them. Some also had suggestions for what should be included in Georgia's first comprehensive, statewide, water-management plan, the reason for this week's series of hearings across the state.

The hearings are being sponsored by the Georgia Water Council, a panel of state agency heads and lawmakers that is developing a water plan for the General Assembly to consider this winter. Under legislation enacted in 2004, lawmakers will get an up-or-down vote on the plan.

If they don't like what they see, they either can write a plan of their own or send it back to the council for reworking.

On Tuesday, a landscaper from Gwinnett County complained that the green industry is being targeted unfairly by the outdoor watering ban the state imposed last month over the northern third of Georgia.

The goal was to cut water demand in the region by 20 percent.

But Dennis Mobley, owner of Mobley Plant Farm in Dacula, said the state's failure to impose restrictions on other industrial water users, including the poultry industry and commercial car washes, will make that goal unreachable.

"We are the only ones who have been told we've got to turn our water off," he said. "If you're going to have a water ban, you have to share it with every user."

Mobley said he had to lay off eight longtime employees last week because of lost business. At the same time, homeowners with wells on their properties don't have to abide by the same outdoor watering restrictions that affect residents hooked to municipal water systems.

Horace Gee, environmental administrator for the City of Gainesville, said that loophole in the drought restrictions is wasting water.

"People are going out and having wells bored just to keep up their ornamental gardens and yards," he said.

With the watering ban affecting virtually everyone, speakers at Tuesday's hearing weren't short of suggestions on how the state could tap into additional water supplies. Several suggested that the state get more aggressive in building reservoirs.

Others advocated desalination, removing the salt from sea water, or pumping surface water underground for use during dry periods, a technology known as aquifer storage and recovery.

In perhaps the most ambitious proposal of the night, Rusty Hodges, of Dahlonega, said Georgia water planners could solve the current drought and ward off any future shortages with what would amount to a giant inter-basin transfer.

"It's only 105 miles from the Tennessee River to Lake Lanier," he said. "We need to plunge into the Tennessee River ... to pull water out in the springtime and satisfy all our water needs."

Hearings on the current draft of the water plan will continue through this week. The water council will meet Nov. 9 to consider changes to the plan, which will then go through a second round of public hearings late next month.