A water plan for Georgia's future - and Augusta's future as well

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Likely no resource is more taken for granted in our region as water, nothing happens without it; our economy and our everyday lives are completely dependent on it. The time has come for us to think seriously about how important water is, and what we need to do to assure that we have enough for the future.

Augusta is fortunate; the location of our city is based on accessibility to a major water source. At the time of Augusta's founding, the need was transportation, but now the river's flow fuels our community.

Again our area is experiencing a drought; we are lucky that it is not as severe as in other parts of the Southeast. Large portions of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee are suffering under "once in a century" drought conditions. In Georgia, a large area is under a total outdoor watering ban, and Lake Lanier, a drinking-water resource for millions, is approaching historically low water levels.

THESE CONDITIONS are sharpening the focus of policymakers around the region. In Georgia specifically, we are in the final process of preparing a statewide water plan to be considered by the General Assembly in 2008. This plan is the result of a lengthy process led by Georgia's Environmental Protection Division. The draft plan is now being considered by a panel of state government leaders, whose final recommendation will be the plan submitted to the legislature.

We all should care about the results of this process, as we each will feel the potential impacts. Water is a finite resource, and there is already competition between uses, even here in the Savannah River basin. As Georgia and South Carolina grow the demands will only increase. In the future, there will not be enough water for every demand to be met exactly as desired. The water plan is meant to prepare us for those forthcoming decisions.

Components of the plan will create water budgets for designated regions, and living within a budget can sometimes be hard. How to allocate the budget between the various uses will be the work of the EPD and a local planning organization under the plan as currently proposed. To make good decisions, we will need the help of data and knowledgeable professionals; both will cost money.

How the state will pay for this ongoing process is a matter of debate. But if we don't make the investment somehow, we will end up with a process that is mistake-prone and uneven in its application across the state.

Modernizing our water infrastructure to keep up with changing demands and supply will require massive investment. Both local water utilities and business will have to plan, design and implement changes in future years on a tremendous scale. It is essential, as they take on this effort, that they do so in a regulatory environment that focuses on clarity, predictability and even-handedness. Roles, responsibility and authority of the proposed layers of water management should be clear, leading to improved outcomes.

If there is one issue regarding water that galvanizes our local citizens and leaders it is interbasin transfers. The movement of water from one natural river basin to another to meet needs is a complicated and emotional issue. Water is a resource, and therefore creates opportunity. The loss of the resource removes opportunity. But not all interbasin transfers are created equal.

Transfers created by the design of local water systems that serve areas including multiple river basins are hardly the same as the idea of sending large amounts of water long distances. However, in either case, one community's use of water should not compromise the legitimate needs, current or future, of another community. The bulk movement of water from one distinct part of a state to another will compromise the future of the donating basin for the benefit of the other region, and these types of transfers should be prohibited outright. The more complex movement of water, between basins on a more local basis, should be closely monitored and regulated.

THE PROPOSED water plan does create a formal process for establishing interbasin transfers, which Georgia has previously lacked. However, that process treats all transfers equally, no matter their design. This needs to be improved.

The Augusta Metro and Columbia County chambers of commerce, together with their board leadership, policy committees and members, are advocating for a plan to be ratified by the Georgia General Assembly that addresses our state's water needs in a scientifically sound, flexible and minimally burdensome fashion, which is equally protective of all Georgians. Augustans will have an opportunity to discuss this and all aspects of the proposed plan at a meeting on Oct. 15 at Augusta Technical College, starting at 6 p.m. The Augusta Metro and Columbia County chambers of commerce encourage participation in this process.

Water resources will be a major part of defining the future of our economy and quality of life. Georgia is laying the groundwork for the future, now. Augusta needs to take its future into its own hands by participating in the discussion about an essential natural resource: water.

(The writers are, respectively, the president and CEO of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, and the executive director of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce.)


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