State agency may restrict water transfers
Article Published in Atlants Buisness Chronicle 12/03/10
State agency may restrict water transfers
Atlanta Business Chronicle - by Dave Williams Date: Friday, December 3, 2010, 6:00am EST
A water-supply option considered vital to metro Atlanta’s future would be subject to restrictions under a proposal to go before Georgia’s environmental policy-making agency.
The state Board of Natural Resources will be briefed Dec. 8 on requirements water utilities would have to meet to gain permits for new interbasin transfers, the piping of water from one river basin into another.
The regulations, which could be voted on as soon as January, would represent middle ground between addressing interbasin transfers only through the nonbinding statewide water management plan adopted by the General Assembly in 2008 or making the permitting criteria part of state law.
Lawmakers representing communities downstream of the metro region pushed for a statute setting rules for interbasin transfers during this year’s legislative session. However, legislative leaders killed it before it could reach the floor of either the House of Representatives or Senate.
“You shouldn’t put into statute something that’s so rigid there’s no flexibility,” said Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. “Rules and regulations are not as powerful as statute. But they give you flexibility.”
Interbasin transfers have been part of a long-simmering and frequently emotional debate over water policy that has pitted legislators from metro Atlanta against their colleagues from other parts of Georgia.
Metro lawmakers see the ability to move water from regions where supplies are plentiful to the fast-growing but water-challenged Atlanta region as critical to the area’s future economic prosperity.
Unlike older U.S. cities, which were built near major waterways for both transportation and water supply, Atlanta sprang up in the 19th century as a rail center in a part of Georgia with small streams, no natural lakes and little groundwater, said Larry Neal, water resources discipline leader for MACTEC, a Georgia-based engineering, environmental and construction services company.
“Most of the big cities are where they are because of an available water resource,” he said. “Atlanta’s just not in that category.”
But in the 21st century, downstream legislators argue, there need to be limits on Atlanta’s ability to raid river systems for water that otherwise would flow to their communities.
“We’re downstream,” said Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler. “What happens upstream impacts us.”
The statewide water plan recommends that water utilities proposing interbasin transfers be able to show that the area to receive the water needs the additional supply and that the river basin losing the water wouldn’t be harmed.
To accomplish that, the applicant would have to compile data on the effects the transfer would have on both water quantity and quality in both the donor and receiving river basins.
“All water transfers have some impact on downstream communities,” said Joe Cook, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, a Rome-based environmental group dedicated to protecting one of the rivers being eyed for interbasin transfers. “We need something by which to gather the facts before we issue a permit.”
“These are things the [Georgia Environmental Protection Division] has always taken into consideration,” saidJim Ussery, assistant director of the EPD, which developed the proposed regulations. “This just codifies those requirements.”
But the argument that the EPD already uses criteria in determining whether to grant permits for interbasin transfers calls into question the need for new regulations, said lawyer Bruce Jackson, co-leader of the Water Resources Practice Team at Atlanta-based Arnall Golden Gregory LLP.
“The Georgia code says EPD must give consideration to water use in the giving and receiving basins,” he said. “What are they doing that’s not already there?”
Jackson also questioned the value of regulating interbasin transfers at the state level when all of the affected river basins are subject to federal laws.
Neal said the greatest danger in the EPD regulating interbasin transfers is that permit approvals likely would be subject to appeals from environmental groups opposed to moving water between river basins on principle.
“It could become so painful to go through that it has a chilling effect on others who might want to apply for an interbasin transfer,” he said.
While Neal and Jackson question the wisdom of putting the state water plan’s nonbinding provisions on interbasin transfers into EPD regulations, another debate is whether the EPD or General Assembly should have the ultimate say on the issue.
Carter said he prefers the EPD approach because putting what are essentially water-allocation decisions in the hands of a legislature increasingly dominated by metro Atlanta lawmakers could lead to decisions harmful to downstream interests.
“That’s why EPD needs to be involved in these things,” he said.
But Rep. Doug McKillip, D-Athens, said state regulations are too easy to change.
“I’d rather have it in statute,” said McKillip, who led an effort in the House this year to put interbasin transfer regulations into law.
“Businesses that want to come to Georgia want there to be stability here. Having something [in state law], short of a constitutional amendment, is as stable as you can get.”
While support for an interbasin transfers law is found primarily among non-metro legislators, some Atlanta-area lawmakers say it’s an important enough at least to warrant discussion under the Gold Dome.
“Interbasin transfers are something every major city in the country relies on. But we need to recognize legitimate concerns of people in our rural areas,” said House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta. “I’d like to see us begin to have an adult conversation on this issue.”