Jobs at heart of Ga. water transfer issue

ATLANTA -- Final passage Thursday of Gov. Sonny Perdue's water-conservation bill represented a missed opportunity for down-stream communities to safeguard the flow of water -- and ultimately jobs, according to a handful of lawmakers representing the Upper Savannah River basin.
"We thought this would be a dandy time to deal with the other side of the issue, the water three-fourths of the state of Georgia has concerns about. That's interbasin water transfers," said Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell.
Powell was part of a bipartisan group that made a plea hours before the House passed Perdue's bill for the public to help them push their legislation, House Bill 1405, that would establish regulations on the transfer of water from one river basin to another. They want to prohibit metro Atlanta from taking water to solve its shortage while creating a new one in another part of the state.
Business groups oppose HB 1405 and a companion bill in the Senate, calling them vague, cumbersome and unneeded. Plus, they say it could torpedo long-term negotiations between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over water Atlanta is using from the Chattahoochee River.
"After 20 years of this legal and political conflict, I would hate to have a premature and shortsighted bill short-circuit recent progress and prevent a final settlement," said Tim Lowe, chair of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's Environment and Energy Committee and president of Lowe Engineering.
HB 1405 is stalled in the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee where chairwoman Lynn Smith, says the time for it isn't ripe.
Smith, a Republican whose hometown of Newnan is downstream on the Chattahoochee from Atlanta, says the transfer debate has simmered for years.
"I have told everyone that we will and do need to have a debate on how the different parts of our state feel about interbasin transfers," she said.
But she wants to wait until July, 2011, when reports are due from the 10 regional councils.
"(Then,) everyone will have a certain education level and be prepared," she said.
The debate is complicated by the fact that roughly 100 of the state's counties include multiple river basin. So hasty legislation could foul them up as well as stifling Atlanta's quest for water, she said.
A 2001 provision that Powell was instrumental in passing prohibits Atlanta's water-planning council from even considering transfers even though Peachtree Street straddles a continental divide that separates water flows between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. His concern is that efforts upstream of that district could still transfer river water.
Rep. Michael Harden, R-Toccoa, responded to those who say the economic viability of Atlanta is more important than the recreational use of the lakes on the state's 14 rivers.
"We're not talking about hunting-and-fishing-and-skiing lakes. These are economic-development lakes," he said. "The water in them represents jobs and the livelihood for a lot of these people.
"... At the core of it is water, but it's also the productivity of rural Georgia."

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