Water-use plan drafted for drought-hit Georgia

/ Source: The Associated Press

Faced with severe water shortages after one of the driest years in Georgia's history, officials on Tuesday approved what they hope will be the state's first comprehensive water management plan.

It took almost three years of wrangling to agree on it, but the Georgia Water Council unanimously adopted the plan, which must be approved by the state's General Assembly before it can take effect.

"This is not going to sit on the shelf. It's not set in stone. But what we've done is a start," said state Rep. Lynn Smith, who is expected to sponsor the proposal in the state House during the next legislative session, which begins next week.

Georgia has never had a plan that guides how water from lakes, rivers and aquifers should be divided, but a growing population and the current drought have given the proposal new urgency.

The plan approved Tuesday advocates measuring Georgia's water resources and charting how they can be used. It also calls for the establishment of 12 water planning districts to manage state water over the next 50 years. The initial cost of implementing the plan is an estimated $30 million.

"We don't have any type of that planning work done," said Carol Couch, the director of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division. "It's basic information. How do you budget your household if you don't know your income?"

Gov. Sonny Perdue was among several top state officials who praised the plan, which also has the backing of some business groups, agricultural lobbyists and utilities.

"This process has been one of the most inclusive and thoughtful that I've observed, with each stakeholder having a seat at the table," Perdue said in a statement.

But some environmentalists criticized the plan, saying planning districts should be based on the borders of watersheds rather than along political boundaries.

Others, like Jennette Gayer of Environment Georgia, said the plan isn't ambitious enough.

"The plan reads like a plan to make another plan," she said.

The General Assembly could approve the proposal, draft its own, or ask the council to submit a new one.