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Water plan clears Senate panel

By Dave Williams

dave.williams@albanyherald.com

ATLANTA - A Senate committee Tuesday put Georgia's first statewide water management plan on a fast track toward passage.

On just the second day of this year's legislative session, the Rules Committee voted unanimously to ratify the plan, despite the concerns of some members of the panel and intense opposition in many parts of the state.

Lawmakers seem anxious to wrap up work quickly on what one Senate leader described Tuesday as the best compromise that's likely to emerge from nearly three years of work.

"This may be a camel," Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) said toward the end of a lengthy hearing that featured strong criticism of the plan. "But if it gets us where we want to go, it doesn't matter if it's ugly."

The water plan essentially is a strategy for ensuring that Georgia has enough water for industry, agriculture and people as the state continues to grow in the coming decades.

It includes recommendations for building additional water supplies while curbing demand through conservation and re-use.

During Tuesday's hearing, a host of speakers representing business and industry, farmers and local governments endorsed the plan.

"We believe this plan works to sustain and grow Georgia's vibrant economy and will foster much needed new water storage facilities," said Michael Paris, president of the Duluth-based Council for Quality Growth.

Tom Gehl, of the Georgia Municipal Association, urged senators to adopt the water plan as soon as possible.

"This plan comes at a time when Georgia is suffering from one of the worst droughts in recorded history," he said. "It's imperative that we have a plan in place."

But several environmental activists said lawmakers shouldn't be in such a hurry to adopt what one speaker called a "deeply flawed" plan without enough safeguards to prevent fast-growing metro Atlanta from grabbing more than its fair share of the state's water.

They repeated criticisms that have appeared in newspaper editorials across Georgia in recent weeks, that the plan isn't strong enough and that it discourages the regional water planning that will be vital in a state with huge differences from one area to another.

Gil Rogers, a staff lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the plan is full of nonbinding language that suggests, but doesn't require the state to regulate projects involving the transfer of water between river basins.

Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, complained that the boundary lines the plan draws for regional water planning districts don't take river basins sufficiently into account.

She pointed out that the Chattahoochee River system under the plan is split between four regions, which is more likely to cause division rather than cooperation in water planning.

"The only way to manage water is by river basins," Bethea said. "There is no ... assurance that water will be shared fairly upstream and downstream."

Sen. Michael Meyer von Bremen (D-Albany) said some counties in the Lower Flint River Basin have expressed similar concerns about the way regional district lines were drawn.

But others argued that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

"If I'd drawn this plan, most of you wouldn't have liked it," said Sen. John Bulloch (R-Ochlocknee), who served on the council of lawmakers and state agency heads that developed the plan. "This is a compromise."

The plan is expected to reach the Senate floor by the end of this week.