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Water: Balloons, guns, slides in policy

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POSTED: July 10, 2007 5:02 a.m.
Don’t like the drought-related watering restrictions in your community? Outraged enough to rat out neighbors who violate watering rules? The state’s water “wars” could get worse: Watch out for the initial draft of the Statewide Water Management Plan, scheduled to be unveiled June 28.
The plan, required by the 2004 “Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Planning Act,” is the beginning of a new direction for Georgia’s future growth, development and economy. Developed by the state Environmental Protection Division, this policy framework will be presented to the Water Council for consideration through December, after which it goes to the General Assembly in 2008 for approval.  
Georgians need to stay involved to ensure the end product promises responsible stewardship of our resources and that anti-growth special interests don’t hold a gun to the state’s economy, people and environment. It’s vital: It’s not just drought and population growth behind the keen interest in consumptive use policy. It’s Georgia’s tri-state water war with Alabama and Florida, too. In an attempt to resolve the dispute, pre-emptive state policy could play a major role in the future industry and agriculture, and anti-growth activists in Georgia aren’t exactly backing this state in negotiations.  
Private property owners could feel the impact. For example, restrictions based on the assumption that “on-site sewage disposal systems” (septic tanks) are bad for the state because their water use is mostly consumptive — they don’t “return” water to the basin — or they could contaminate groundwater, might prevent a landowner from building a home in the mountains, rural area or any area lacking sewer hookup.
A sensible solution could simply be to require oversight of septic systems: fee-based, mandated routine inspections.
One county follows the statewide odd-even address watering restriction; is it reasonable or sensible for the neighboring county to permit a resident to water just one day a week?
Pocketbook policy, pricing water so customers reconsider excess, is far wiser than banking on conservation. Like transit, conservation is a “nice idea” — for everyone else. But it backfires on utilities, which must rely on revenues to improve, expand and repair infrastructure. If customers use less water, there’s less money to repair ailing infrastructure, while costs balloon and efficiency suffers.  
An anti-Atlanta sentiment drives the paranoid belief that all Georgia’s water will — gasp! — be piped to the economic engine that is metro Atlanta, home to more than half the state population. Yet at the same time there’s a reluctance to facilitate the market-based opportunity to transfer water withdrawal permits from one user to another, in essence stifling growth and economic opportunities in other areas of the state.
While farmers may transfer their water withdrawal permits with the sale of their land, they may only do so for agricultural purposes. This stifles development opportunities without encouraging efficient use. Instead of dictating winners and losers, the state ought to allow the more efficient and equitable approach of a market-based trading system.
As the state looks at refining watershed and basin management, the potential for micromanagement is frightening. The varying priorities of local and regional stakeholders could become a downhill slide into turf wars and a bureaucratic nightmare that destroys any hope of cooperative resolution, development and economic growth. Interbasin transfers, backed by oversight based on sound science, and additional reservoirs for that “rainy day” capacity are tools of water management Georgia can’t afford to go without.
When it comes to water, politics will drive the policy and, beginning Thursday, Georgia residents, businesses and farmers must stay vigilant to be sure the policy framework, an ongoing process, remains fact-based and doesn’t surrender to activism. Our future and quality of life are at stake.

Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.
 

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