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Water plan goes to lawmakers

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POSTED: January 24, 2008 5:02 a.m.
ATLANTA — Georgia would get its first statewide water management plan under a proposal approved Tuesday by the drought-stricken state’s top environmental officials.
The Georgia Water Council, a group of lawmakers and officials, unanimously adopted the plan after almost three years of wrangling over its specifics. But it must still be approved by Georgia’s lawmakers before it can take effect, a process that promises more debate during the legislative session.
“This is not going to sit on the shelf. It’s not set in stone,” said state Rep. Lynn Smith, a Newnan Republican charged with sponsoring the proposal in the state House. “But what we’ve done is a start.”
Perdue signed legislation calling for a water plan in 2004, and the final version came at an opportune time. The extreme drought gripping the state has given the plan new urgency, and the council’s meetings have been packed with lobbyists, lawmakers and media.
The plan calls measuring Georgia’s water resources and charting how it could be used. It also sets up 12 water planning districts to oversee how each district uses its water resources.
Each of the councils would have 25 members — 13 to be appointed by the governor, six by the House Speaker and six by the lieutenant governor. At least eight of the members are required to be locally elected officials, appeasing county lobbyists who wanted more local representation on each council.
The districts could each develop ways to plan for water use over the next 50 years, such as creating more reservoirs.
“We don’t have any type of that planning work done,” said Carol Couch, the state’s top environmental official. “It’s basic information. How do you budget your household if you don’t know your income?”
The plan won immediate praise from Gov. Sonny Perdue, House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who issued their statements in a joint news release.
“This process has been one of the most inclusive and thoughtful that I’ve observed, with each stakeholder having a seat at the table,” the governor said.
But it drew sharp criticism from environmentalists who argued that the water planning districts set up by the proposal should be based on the borders of watersheds instead of political boundaries.
Joe Maltese of the Middle Chattahoochee Water Coalition, for one, warned members that “Mother Nature will always win.” Others knocked it for being light on ambition.
“The plan reads like a plan to make another plan,” said Jennette Gayer of Environment Georgia.
But it earned the support of business groups, agricultural lobbyists and utilities.
“We now have a plan that not only we can live with, but it’s a workable plan that can propel us forward in providing for Georgia’s future,” said Jack Dozier, executive director of the Georgia Association of Water Professionals. “It’s virtually impossible to make everyone happy when you start drawing lines on a map, but this is a sensible approach.”
The General Assembly could approve the proposal, draft its own, or ask the council to submit a new one. And lawmakers could be faced with a rival choice, as environmental groups have warned that an alternative plan would be offered.
But Couch said the version adopted Tuesday is both comprehensive and adaptable, something that can be used “in good times and bad times.”
“Some have said it’s just a plan to plan. No, it’s not,” she said. “Stay tuned. It will be immediately enforced.”
 

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