Originally created 04/22/01

Atlanta searches for water



ATLANTA - Since Gov. Roy Barnes took office more than two years ago, one of his themes has been "one Georgia," the need to prop up the economies of rural counties so they aren't left behind by the booming Atlanta region.

He even created an authority with that name and put its headquarters in Dublin.

But now, Atlanta's search for adequate water supplies to cope with the region's rapid growth once again is dividing the state into two camps.

Political, business and community leaders from upstream and downstream of metro Atlanta are worried the thirsty metropolis will reach beyond the narrow Chattahoochee River basin and grab their water through massive interbasin transfers, which have been taking place on a small scale for years.

The suddenly hot issue factored into recent legislation creating a water-planning district for the Atlanta region and Georgia's tentative water-sharing agreement with Alabama.

"It's totally controversial," said Chris DeVinney, associate legislative director of natural resources and environment for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. "Various cities are looking at their neighbors and saying, `Who's eyeing my water?"'

Of the 25 interbasin transfers now taking place, 17 are limited to metro Atlanta, a region that lies within parts of five river basins.

But red flags have gone up in recent months in other parts of Georgia.

In February, concern over a proposal by Habersham County to pump water from the Tugaloo River, a tributary of the Savannah River, to customers in the Chattahoochee River basin prompted members of Augusta's legislative delegation to pull $500,000 out of the state's midyear budget that had been intended for a study of water use along the Savannah.

The lawmakers were worried the study's results could be used to justify an interbasin transfer they oppose."That resource belongs to the people who live along the river," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

The chief objection environmentalists have to interbasin transfers is they interfere with the natural flow of water through river basins.

Moving water from one basin to another can suddenly thrust wildlife species into a foreign environment, thus changing habitat, while the contributing basin can suffer a loss in water quality because of the reduced flow, said Sally Bethea, executive director of Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and a member of the Georgia Board of Natural Resources.

Environmentalists gained some powerful allies during the recent General Assembly session when a group of lawmakers from outside of the Atlanta area interjected interbasin transfers into the debate over Mr. Barnes' bill creating a water-planning district for 18 metro-Atlanta counties.

Rep. Jeff Brown, R-LaGrange, spearheaded an amendment prohibiting the district's governing board from either studying or pursuing interbasin transfers from outside the Atlanta region into the metro area.

Mr. Harbin said the fears of lawmakers from outside of Atlanta for their water go beyond ownership rights or even environmental concerns. He said Atlanta's thirst for additional water supplies, if left unchecked, could work against the governor's "one Georgia" philosophy.

Despite that economic argument, business interests are vowing to work against banning inter-basin transfers.

Stephen Loftin, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's vice president for governmental affairs, said interbasin transfers have benefited many businesses in the Atlanta area.

"Being a statewide chamber, we tend to agree that each region needs to live within its own means in terms of water," Mr. Loftin said. "But an outright ban on interbasin transfers would hurt a lot of businesses that use water from one river system and put it back into another basin."

David Word, assistant director of the state Environmental Protection Division, said Georgia can't afford to lose the flexibility of having interbasin transfers as an option when a legislative study committee sits down this summer to start work on a long-anticipated statewide comprehensive water-management plan.

He has proposed a set of guidelines governing interbasin transfers. Members of the Board of Natural Resources will consider his suggestions as they formulate their recommendations to the study committee.

Mr. Word says existing interbasin transfers should be exempted from any future regulations, while new or expanding transfers should be allowed only if they don't harm either the contributing river basin or the receiving basin.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.

Moving water from one river valley to another

Lawmakers and environmental activists are worried the practice of moving water could spread to other parts of the state, citing as an example a recent request by Habersham County to pump water from the Savannah River to customers who live in the Chattahoochee River basin. Most of the 10-largest interbasin transfers of water in Georgia are occurring in the Atlanta region:

County Basin transfer Quantity (in millions of gallons a day)

DeKalb......Chattahoochee to Ocmulgee..........56.0

Cobb........Coosa to Chattahoochee.............37.6

Gwinnett....Chattahoochee to Ocmulgee..........21.5

Habersham...Savannah to Chattahoochee..........12.0*

Clayton.....Flint to Ocmulgee...............9.0

Coweta......Flint to Chattahoochee..............7.5

Paulding....Coosa to Chattahoochee..............6.4

Hall........Chattahoochee to Oconee.............5.0

Rockdale....Chattahoochee to Ocmulgee...........5.0

Barrow......Chattahoochee to Oconee..............3.3

*proposed

Source: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division