DNR board approves new water transfer rule
Article published in Atlanta Journal Constitution 01/26/11
DNR board approves new water transfer rule
By Chris Joyner
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gov. Nathan Deal’s push for new reservoir development got a boost Wednesday from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources board, which adopted a new rule governing transfer of water between basins despite pleas by environmentalists urging a tougher stance.
Some members of the board defended Wednesday's vote as a good balance between conservation and development.
"Sometimes you have to give a little bit to get something," board member Loyce Turner said.
The swapping of water between basins, known as interbasin transfers, is key to the way many existing reservoirs operate. Restricting such transfers would make new reservoir development difficult, said Todd Edwards, lobbyist for the Association of County Commissions of Georgia.
Edwards said more than 100 Georgia counties sit astride one or more river basins.
“It’s not just a metro Atlanta thing,” he told the board.
Environmentalists worry such transfers can be harmful to the health of rivers and streams in the basin from which water is taken and never returned. They also can harm the prosperity of downstream communities that lose access to that water, advocates say.
The rule states the director of the Environmental Protection Division should consider a variety of factors before issuing a permit for a new interbasin transfer, including the effect such transfers have on the environment and downstream communities. Environmental groups flooded the board with more than 1,000 e-mails asking the word "should" be replaced with the tougher "shall." The board received 20 written statements supporting the less-strict wording.
The rule does require more notice be given of proposed transfers, including a public comment period.
Deal has set aside $46 million in his proposed budget to spark development of new reservoirs and this week said he will order the creation of a Water Supply Development Task Force to assist local governments with the task. Of 10 reservoirs around the state either proposed or under development, seven involve possible interbasin transfers, according to an EDP spreadsheet.
Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said requiring the state to take the environment and other factors into account would give people opposed to interbasin transfers grounds to challenge an EPD permit.
"‘Should' doesn't give them the opportunity to do that," he said.
Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, said the new rule mirrored language in the state water plan, which was drafted with the input from government, business and environmental groups.
"Everybody had a voice in that process," he said.
Tolleson, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said he trusts the EPD to protect the state from bad water management plans.
Ron Carroll, director of science for the River Basin Center at the University of Georgia, said moving millions of gallons of water from one river basin to another is a chancy business. The transfers mix organisms – from fish to bacteria – that do not normally go together, he said.
“You are doing an experiment with no way of knowing what you are doing,” he said.
These projects can introduce invasive species or new diseases that can have unintended results, he said. On the other hand, nothing may happen, he said.
“We don’t know the consequences, and it is a big event,” he said.
On the human side, people downstream may worry about the consequences of the water that nature pointed in their direction being sent somewhere else, he said.
“People feel like they have a right to the water and it is being usurped upstream,” he said.
Such transfers occur every day in Georgia as local governments withdraw water from one source, send it to homes and businesses, then process the water and deposit it in another basin.
Metro Atlanta depends on interbasin transfers, said Jack Dozier, executive director of the Georgia Association of Water Professionals.
“If you have dinner at Mary Mac’s and have a couple of glasses of tea and walk across to the Fox Theatre to catch a show, you are probably going to participate in an interbasin transfer,” he said.