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Water plan unveiled for state
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ATLANTA -- The Georgia Water Council on Thursday presented its much-awaited proposal for a comprehensive plan for the state's water management, aimed at providing adequate water for a growing population while protecting river systems and groundwater from pollution.

The 14-member council will begin reviewing the 81-page document over the next few weeks. Starting in mid-July, the agency hopes to get its first public input on the issue through its Web site, with a formal public hearing process to take place across the state later this summer. The final plan is expected to be approved by the early December, and presented to the General Assembly on the first day of the 2008 legislative session.

The plan arose from a 2004 Georgia statute requiring the creation of the state's first comprehensive water management plan. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division had to produce a draft plan by the end of this month and submit it to the Water Council, which was created as part of the statute.

Authors of the plan say it is the first that addresses Georgia's water needs over the long term as a state, instead of locally and in response to specific issues like the ongoing drought. The proposal calls for a plan that functions like a cycle instead of a one-time process.

First, the Environmental Protection Division will conduct water resource assessments to determine the state's water quantity and quality. Regional water planning councils will then use population and employment estimates to forecast water needs for their areas. From the forecasts, a plan will be created and proposed to the EPD.

After the plan is adopted by the agency, it would be implemented and the EPD will make water permitting decisions based on those plans.

The plan calls for a thorough scientific understanding of the state's surface and groundwater resources.

"There are some parts of the state where we are facing real limitations on the amount of water available and the ability to discharge treated wastewater," said EPD Senior policy advisor Gail Cowie, one of the authors of the plan. "In other parts of the state, we don't have the information to know how close we are to running into limitations."

The regional water planning councils have not yet been identified, and it is not yet clear how many there will be or how they will be decided. Nap Caldwell, an EPD policy and planning adviser, said the councils will be named over the next several months, and the water council will likely consider natural, political and economic boundaries in creating those groups.

"The plan rests upon the notion that if we're going to preserve those kinds of opportunities for growth and development, we must do that through an understanding of these resources from one region to another," Caldwell said. "At the very heart of this is the need to move forward with a set of regional plans."

Georgia Conservancy general counsel and vice president Julie Mayfield attended Thursday's hearing, but had not yet read the water plan when asked for comment. Still, she said she was encouraged by the presentation.

"I think what we heard is some consistency with what the Georgia Water Coalition has identified as its priorities," Mayfield said.

The coalition consists of 149 partners from across the state. The group called for a plan that protects downstream communities, addresses efficient water use, protects water quality and clean water funds and supports public input and local action.

"We need to look at the details," Mayfield said. "What we're clear about is that the ultimate authority for water management needs to remain with the EPD and not be farmed out to local water authorities. Otherwise, what you risk is unequal application of water policies throughout the state."


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