Rural legislators push interbasin transfer rules
Published in the Atlanta Buisness Chronicle April 2010
Friday, April 23, 2010
Rural legislators push interbasin transfer rules
Atlanta Business Chronicle - by Dave Williams Staff Writer
Just as business leaders were celebrating passage of a high-priority water conservation bill, a divisive water-policy issue they say threatens Atlanta’s future growth has emerged in the waning days of the 2010 General Assembly session.
Working with environmental groups, lawmakers from outside of the Atlanta region have attached a provision regulating “interbasin transfers” — piping water from one river basin in Georgia to another — to a Senate water measure now before the Georgia House of Representatives.
But Republican legislative leaders are vowing to prevent the long-simmering debate over interbasin transfers from reaching the floor of either legislative chamber this year.
“I’m the gatekeeper here,” Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee declared April 20. “If I wasn’t, an interbasin transfer bill would be flying out of this building like a streak of greased lightning.”
The measure is the latest of nearly a decade of efforts by non-Atlanta legislators to ensure that the populous but water-challenged metro region cannot raid river systems in other parts of Georgia for water to fuel Atlanta’s continued rapid growth.
In 2001, they succeeded in prohibiting interbasin transfers from outside of the newly created Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District into the district, which consists primarily of the metro counties.
Also, the statewide water management plan adopted by the General Assembly two years ago requires the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to consider a series of criteria before issuing new or modified permits for interbasin transfers.
But the water plan lacks statutory authority, and environmentalists and their legislative allies thus far have failed to get that language codified into law.
The interbasin transfers issue was notably missing from the recommendations of a task force formed by Gov. Sonny Perdue after a federal court ruling last summer threatened the future of Lake Lanier as a regional water supply. As a result, the governor’s water conservation bill passed overwhelmingly by the General Assembly last month is silent on interbasin transfers.
Bipartisan efforts by non-Atlanta lawmakers to address the issue in separate legislation have failed to gain traction in the House and Senate environmental committees.
But anti-interbasin transfer forces finally won a victory on April 15, when the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted 9-6 to attach an interbasin transfers provision to a Senate-passed bill pertaining to the North Georgia water district.
Rep. Doug McKillip, D-Athens, who led the fight in the House committee, said accusations by business groups that his provision would be a death knell for interbasin transfers are overblown.
“This is light years away from an outright ban,” McKillip said. “For all the controversy, all the amendment does is require the director [of the Environmental Protection Division] to consider the criteria we put in the statewide water management plan before he or she considers approving a new [interbasin transfer] permit or expanding an existing permit.”
Under the amendment, the EPD would have to take into account the effects any proposed interbasin transfer would have on both the “donor” and “receiving” basins.
That would include the environmental impacts of interbasin transfers as well as the economic feasibility and cost effectiveness of such projects. Also, applicants for interbasin transfers would have to demonstrate that they are doing what they can to conserve water and have explored other “reasonable” water supply options.
“What this does is ensure downstream communities that their interests are going to be protected by the Environmental Protection Division,” said Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, an environmental group that watches over one of the river systems that has been eyed for interbasin transfers. “Right now, we don’t have those assurances.”
But John Krueger, senior vice president of public policy for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said the hoops project applicants would have to clear with the EPD under McKillip’s amendment essentially would ban interbasin transfers.
“You’d outlaw some water exchanges that are already taking place and working effectively,” Krueger said. “This could have a devastating effect on economies across Georgia.”
Legislative opponents of McKillip’s amendment also argue that it is ill-timed.
Sen. Dan Weber, R-Dunwoody, chief sponsor of the underlying Senate bill that now carries the interbasin transfer amendment, said his legislation would authorize the North Georgia water district to conduct engineering studies vital to understanding the ramifications of interbasin transfers and a host of other water-supply options.
“There’s a collective effort to look at many aspects of this water situation,” he said. “Let’s stay in that mode and not try to jump the gun.”
With last year’s federal court ruling threatening to ban most water withdrawals from Lake Lanier in 2012, Tolleson said, Georgia water policy makers simply can’t afford to be hamstrung by legal barriers to interbasin transfers.
“I don’t know where we’re going to be a year from now,” he said. “[But] we can’t just flip a switch when we get to that point. ... We’ve got to be visionary about getting more supplies of water now.”