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State water plan faces dams
In-state, out-of-state interests eye plan
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ATLANTA -- The biggest hurdle standing between Georgia and its pursuit of a long-term water management plan might not be the lingering legal fight with Alabama and Florida or the uncertainty about federal intentions.

It might just come from within Georgia's own borders.

State Rep. Lynn Smith, the lawmaker charged with carrying the water plan through the Legislature, issued a not-so-gentle reminder to Atlanta leaders about the city's reputation throughout the rest of the state.

"The rest of the state looks at you with straws in your pocket, ready to suck out the water," she told business leaders and politicians Monday at a water panel hosted by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

"If you don't realize you're the enemy, just look around," said Smith, a Republican from Newnan. "Because the rest of the state sees you that way."

Smith's message underscores the challenges she and other state lawmakers face as they prepare to debate a water plan in a state where hot-button issues have long forced divisions more along regional lines than party lines.

Kit Dunlap, who chairs metro Atlanta's water planning district, characterized the views of rural Georgia this way: "All they want to do is take your water."

The sentiment is nothing new to Atlanta leaders, who face similar splits each year over a slew of divisive proposals, from transportation overhauls to the debate over Sunday sale of alcohol.

Still, they say they should be doing a better job promoting their water conservation measures to other parts of the state, such as the nearly $4 billion project to overhaul Atlanta's aging sewer and water infrastructure and the two-tiered pricing scheme throughout the city that hikes the rates of the biggest users.

"We need a more aggressive way of telling our story, so we are not seen as a problem, but a part of the solution," said Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

One way, she said, is to challenge metro Atlanta governments to update their water systems.

"I would urge we dig deeply in our pockets. It's a big investment area we need to tackle," she said. "And if Atlanta is any indication, residents are willing to pay for clean water."

Added Sam Williams, the president of the metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce: "Metro Atlanta needs to do a better job telling the rest of the state, 'We're not the camel slurping up the rest of the water.'"

It won't be easy.

Tennessee policymakers are already bristling at the suggestion that Atlanta might look to the massive Tennessee River for some of its water needs.

Farmers in southwest Georgia have been packing water meetings for fears that they'll be forgotten during the water planning process. And some on the other side of the state fear that Atlanta is eyeing the Savannah River to quench its thirst.

"Lawmakers must know they can't treat Georgians outside metro Atlanta like water boys," read a column last week by Tom Barton, the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.

Sam Olens, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said pitting metro Atlanta against the rest of the state is a familiar political ploy.

"The old ... scenario that tries to divide Georgia between Atlanta and the rest of the state is still alive. And none of these cheap shots help us conserve our water," he said. "This isn't an Atlanta plan. This is a Georgia plan. We are Georgians and we need a win for the entire state."

There's little doubt, however, that the drought gripping the Southeast has given Georgia lawmakers a new sense of urgency to finally form a statewide plan, said Carol Couch, the state's top environmental official.

"We've hit the wall with the piecemeal process and piecemeal decisionmaking," said Couch. "We need to plan together now."

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