ATLANTA --- Members of the board of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources knew at a meeting last month that there was a lot of opposition to a proposed rule governing how the state would treat some big water projects.
What they did not know -- because staffers did not tell them -- was that the federal government, Alabama state officials and the chambers of commerce of Rome and Augusta were among those urging the board to reconsider. Instead, staffers from the Environmental Protection Division told the board most of the about 1,000 comments against the measure came from a form letter on an environmentalist Web site.
Following the recommendation from the EPD, the board approved the rule unanimously. Board Chairman Earl Barrs said board members should have been told about the letters.
"You would think that a letter from some federal agency would get some consideration," he said. "I don't think it would have changed the outcome of the vote. I think it would have been fair for us to have seen that and had those discussions in committee meetings."
The rule governs how the state will permit the transfer of water from one river basin to another, a process known as interbasin transfer.
Such transfers are controversial, in part, because of potential environmental side effects caused by rerouting great quantities of water from a river and not returning it after use. Downstream communities object to interbasin transfers because they can result in lower river flows in dry months, leaving them less water for their own uses.
Complaints over the rule boiled down to one word: should.
The rule said the EPD director should consider a variety of environmental and economic factors before granting a permit for a new interbasin transfer. Letters of opposition wanted to require the director to take those factors into account by replacing "should" with the word "shall."
"Projects that allocate water for human use, like IBTs, can alter aquatic systems for many miles up and downstream of a project, as well as promote developmental opportunities that lead to increases in sewage and stormwater discharges," Sandra Tucker, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in a Jan. 7 letter to the EPD. "We encourage the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to strengthen the language in the proposed rule."
A separate letter sent jointly by the directors of the Alabama departments of Environmental Management and Economic and Community Affairs took a similar approach, saying the permissive wording of the rule "does nothing more than pay lip service to serious considerations of the potential impacts of IBTs in interstate basins."