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Georgia water plan speeds up with drought

Georgia has never had a statewide water management plan, and state lawmakers appear to be eager to make up for lost time.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Georgia has never had a statewide water management plan, and state lawmakers appear to be eager to make up for lost time.

Just four days into the 2008 legislative session, committees in both the House and Senate have approved a water plan that's been three years in the making. And the full Legislature could consider the proposal as early as Friday.

The plan's speedy progress through the plodding Legislature is as good a signal as any that lawmakers are anxious to adopt some sort of water plan — even if a few acknowledge it might not be the best.

"This may be a camel," said Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson. "But if it gets us where we want to go, it doesn't matter if it's ugly."

A Senate panel approved the plan Tuesday in a lengthy afternoon meeting. And Thursday a House committee followed the Senate's lead, voting to adopt the plan after a quick morning gathering.

Gov. Sonny Perdue signed legislation calling for a water plan in 2004, and the final version comes at a pivotal time. Despite recent rainfall, the state still faces a severe drought that's forced officials to restrict water use through much of Georgia.

The plan calls for three years of assessments to measure Georgia's water supply and demand, and Perdue's budget promises $11 million to jump-start the program. It also creates regional water planning councils to draft water plans for each area.

At each round, though, the plan has faced criticism from environmentalists who say the council regions should be based on river basin boundaries instead of political ones. And some rural residents fear the plan lacks safeguards to prevent Atlanta from grabbing a bigger share of the state's water.

But Carol Couch, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, has said repeatedly the plan creates no "lock box" of water for metro Atlanta. And she said through 60 water council meetings, 22 town hall meetings and 600 comments, the state has crafted the best policy it can.

Couch told lawmakers that Georgia faces a crisis today. Not adopting the "enforceable and strongly and deeply vetted plan before you will only serve to place this state at greater and greater risk," she said.