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Drought evaporates in Legislature

ATLANTA (AP) - A year ago, legislators couldn't wait to show the public they were tackling Georgia's epic drought. One of their first votes was to embrace a statewide water plan. And powerful lawmakers soon backed a quixotic bid to claim water from the Tennessee River.

The drought still grips parts of north Georgia, and Lake Lanier - Atlanta's main water supply - is still around 14 feet under normal level. But the environmental groups fear debate over drought has all but evaporated in the Georgia Legislature.

"Water's definitely not as high profile as it was last year," said Jill Johnson of Georgia Conservation Voters, an environmental lobby. "But the drought hasn't gone away, and Georgians are still concerned about their water supply."

It's not for lack of trying. At least a half dozen proposals have been introduced by lawmakers from both parties that would spur conservation and crack down on pollution. But chamber leaders have not publicly made any of them a priority.

Instead, they have said they will deliberate each proposal on an individual basis. And Carol Couch, the state's top environmental official, said her office is focused on a statewide water management plan to help set Georgia's water policy for decades to come.

"While drought is not making news like it was a year ago, drought management remains an issue and we need to manage water use for the greatest conservation savings," said Couch, the director of the state Environmental Protection Division.

Meanwhile, there's a growing number of lower-profile measures percolating in the Legislature.

State Rep. Richard Smith proposed new rules that would make it more difficult for local governments to add septic systems, which don't return water into the sewage system.

The green lawns dotting Georgia neighborhoods could get an overhaul under a proposal by state Rep. Calvin Smith that would prevent neighborhood associations from blocking drought-tolerant plants in yards.

State Rep. Judy Manning is backing a measure that would require multifamily complexes to be built with a water meter on each housing unit to encourage more conservation.

And anyone who runs a sewage or septic sludge disposal operation would have to have a written financial plan in place to fix any mishaps under a proposal by state Rep. Tommy Benton.

The proposals generally have support from green groups, but none have been embraced with the same sense of urgency as the proposals that emerged last year when Georgia was locked in a historic drought.

"It's early yet," said state Rep. Lynn Smith, a Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. "Does it mean we don't have knowledge about things that need to be done? No. But the legislative process is meant to be slow. There's going to be lots of options, and I'm open to them."

In the opening days of last year's legislative session, lawmakers quickly approved Georgia's first water management plan, an outline of how the resource should be managed.

They soon followed that up by passing a measure that gave Georgia's top attorney the power to sue to move the state's northern boundary just far enough north to tap into the Tennessee River. The state contends a flawed 1818 survey mistakenly placed the state's northern line just short of the mighty river.

And lawmakers signed off on a plan to funnel $40 million of state funds to build reservoirs, although the funding was later quietly abandoned as Georgia's budget shortfall grew.

Since then, above-average rainfall has helped most of the state emerge from the driest conditions. Some 71 percent of Georgia was locked in at least a "moderate" drought last February; now less than 14 percent of the state is in that category.

But extreme drought still lingers in Georgia's northeast corners, and the pressure on its water system isn't likely to ease as the state's population continues to grow.

For conservation groups, the lessons of the drought are becoming a mantra of sorts. Johnson, for one, says she's frustrated that leading lawmakers aren't publicly backing water conservation efforts, but she hopes attitudes will change as the session moves forward.

"Water policy is not as sexy as taxes," said Johnson. "But it's extremely important to have a healthy environment that can support a thriving economy."