By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - The General Assembly overwhelmingly ratified a statewide water management plan Friday despite objections that it will let metro Atlanta grab water from less populous parts of the state.
The House approved the plan 131-37 after two and a half hours of emotionally charged debate. About an hour earlier, the Senate adopted an identical resolution 39-12 after a shorter, but no less intense discussion.
Rather than the typical partisan disagreements between Republicans and Democrats, the debates and the subsequent votes in each chamber broke down primarily along geographical lines, with opposition to the plan led by lawmakers from upstream and downstream of the metro region.
Friday's passage of the water plan capped a process that dates back to 2001, when the legislature created a water planning district for metro Atlanta to ensure that the region will have enough water in the coming decades to keep pace with rapid population growth.
Lawmakers then set the statewide water plan in motion in 2004, forming a council of legislators and state agency heads to develop the document in conjunction with the state Environmental Protection Division.
The plan, which the council adopted just last week, includes recommendations for securing additional water supplies as well as suggestions for reducing demand.
It also provides for the formation of 11 regional water planning districts that will undertake scientific studies during the next three years to determine the quantity of water available in each region and how much will be needed in future decades.
But it's what is not in the plan that stirred a parade of legislators to go to the well of the House and Senate and urge their colleagues to reject it.
Since the plan cannot conflict with existing state law, there is nothing in it to curb the 16-county metro district's thirst for water, said Rep. Mark Hatfield (R-Waycross).
With five of Georgia's six major river systems flowing through the metro region, the district can control the vast majority of the state's water supply, he said.
"If they decide to put a stranglehold on water going downstream, there's nothing we'll be able to do about it," he said.
Other opponents complained that the metro district's status in state law gives it an unfair advantage over the regional water planning districts the plan creates in the rest of Georgia.
"We lose because we don't have the same rights as the metro-Atlanta planning district," said Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome).
The plan's critics also objected that it divides the regional water districts along political lines rather than watershed boundaries.
For example, metro Atlanta and Columbus are in different regions although they share the Chattahoochee River.
"Water quantity and quality should be decided by the route of water, not along county lines," said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin).
But Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan), chairman of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee and the resolution's sponsor, said drawing districts along county lines was important, because county governments eventually will be called upon to secure the funding that will be needed for water system improvements.
"We're going to study our resources based on watersheds," she said. "[But] we're going to have to deliver based on our political system."
Even some of the lawmakers who voted for the plan conceded it has flaws. But they argued that the legislature should move ahead with the plan so the studies can begin and come back and fix any problems with additional legislation.
"If you live in a potential donor basin and see those big straws coming ... we have the authority and power to address that," said Rep. Brian Thomas (D-Lilburn). "All it would require is for us to put it into statute."
Friday's votes weren't the last word on the water plan. Even though the House and Senate resolutions are identical, one of the chambers will have to adopt the other's resolution to send it on to Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Also, Hatfield served notice that he will ask the House to reconsider its vote approving the plan.