By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - With recent rains failing to dent the drought, the General Assembly's two top leaders Thursday called for building a network of reservoirs to protect Georgia from future water shortages.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson said they will push a bill this winter making it easier for local governments to build reservoirs.
The long-term statewide water management plan the legislature is expected to adopt during the 2008 session calls for new reservoirs across North Georgia, where regional and local systems rely on surface water for the vast majority of their supplies.
But the outdoor watering ban and 10-percent conservation order in effect across the northern third of the state adds to the sense of urgency, said Richardson (R-Hiram.)
"The extreme drought situation we are in now reinforces the fact that we must do a better job planning for the future," the speaker said during a news conference at the Capitol with Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer.
The bill would allow local governments to apply for state funding to enlarge existing reservoirs or obtain permits to build new ones.
It also calls for the state to help shepherd permit applicants through the cumbersome approval process. Currently, it takes up to 14 years to build a reservoir and put it to use.
"By partnering with local governments and water authorities and cutting through some of the red tape ... we are confident we can capture more rainfall and meet the water needs of our state," Cagle said.
But April Ingle, executive director of the Athens-based Georgia River Network, said curbing demand for water through conservation would be much less expensive and take less time than building more reservoirs.
"Reservoirs cost millions of dollars and take a long time to construct," she said. "We could do some innovative, aggressive conservation measures much cheaper and faster."
One example of that approach came this week when Rep. Karla Drenner,(D-Avondale Estates,) announced plans to introduce legislation requiring low-flow plumbing fixtures in new residential and commercial construction.
Environmental advocates oppose reservoirs as disrupting the natural flows of river systems, to the detriment of downstream water users.
But the state's top environmental officials and political leaders have said repeatedly in recent weeks that conservation alone won't be enough to, either end the current water shortage, or head off future droughts.