Originally created 05/23/01

Water flow needs limit, panel says



ATLANTA - Reacting to fears that metro Atlanta might be coveting water supplies from other parts of Georgia to support its explosive growth, a policy-making committee Tuesday recommended banning interbasin transfers of water crossing more than two counties.

"It prohibits pipelining," said Jim Butler of Columbus, a member of the state Board of Natural Resources' Environmental Protection Committee.

It was Mr. Butler who proposed including the ban in recommendations by the board to a newly created legislative study committee that soon will begin laying the groundwork for a comprehensive statewide water management plan.

The full board will vote on the 62-page "white paper" today.

Interbasin transfers surfaced as an issue during this year's General Assembly debate over legislation creating a water-planning district for the Atlanta region.

Lawmakers from outside of the metro area, worried that the district could set the stage for a massive water grab, amended the bill to prohibit interbasin transfers into the district from other parts of the state.

But to the chagrin of most ardent opponents of moving water, the Legislature stopped short of an outright ban.

"The growth in this state will not happen across this state if we don't allow our water resources to stay where they are," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez.

Mr. Harbin was poised to introduce a bill banning interbasin transfers during the session because of concerns over whether metro-Atlanta counties might come after water from the Savannah River basin. But he says he held off at the request of Department of Natural Resources officials.

"I'm very happy that they're finally looking at this issue," he said Tuesday. "But had they been listening to our recommendations just a few months ago, we could have passed this and had it behind us."

The recommendation to the legislative study panel calls for an administrative regulation and/or state law prohibiting so-called "long-distance" interbasin transfers except during emergencies, such as multiyear droughts. In such situations, the transfers could be only temporary.

The proposal also would allow existing interbasin transfers and permit new transfers within counties or between adjacent counties.

"Nobody has objected to those things, and we don't know of any harm being done to anybody by those things," said Harold Reheis, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

Another key recommendation in the white paper would shift the state's priorities for water use during a drought. Again at Mr. Butler's suggestion, the Environmental Protection Committee voted to suggest that maintaining sufficient stream flows be given second priority behind only having adequate water for human consumption.

Current state law gives second priority to agricultural water use, which is broadly defined to include some green spaces, including golf courses.

Board member J.D. Caswell of Norcross objected to the reordering of priorities.

"We're taking the food supply and putting it secondary to stream flow," he said. "I'd have a hard time taking away water from the farmers who put food on my table."

Mr. Butler argued that maintaining adequate stream flows would be the best way to ensure that Georgia's rapid population growth isn't allowed to deplete water for agriculture, industry, aquatic life and recreation in the coming decades.

"Our first priority has to be human consumption," he said. "But if we're not careful, growth over the next 50 years ... will imperil the availability of water for all other uses."

Buck Workman, chairman of the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association, asked board members to reconsider dropping golf courses lower on the priority list. He said the golf industry has been a major player in water conservation by switching to more drought-resistant grass and using treated wastewater for irrigation.

"Golf isn't a matter of life and death, or shouldn't be," said Mr. Workman, superintendent at the Cateechee Golf Club in Hartwell. "But there are thousands of people employed in the green industry."

During the next two years, the legislative committee will be wrestling with that and many other issues. The panel, created by the General Assembly this year, will hold its first meeting May 31 in Athens.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.