Judson H. Turner: The promise of Georgia's water strategy

November 1, 2013 

Having been involved in state water policy and interstate water basin negotiations and litigation for roughly 8 years, I believe we are at the dawn of a new era with greater promise and a clearer path forward to secure Georgia's water supply.

My optimism is rooted in the fact that I see the fruits of our state water planning efforts and the promise of those efforts now that the courts have resolved the threshold question of Lake Lanier's availability for water supply. Additionally, Governor Deal's Water Supply Program is being implemented in concert with a sound state water supply strategy. This program has great potential to secure the state's water supply by effectively improving how we plan, construct and operate new water supply facilities.

Our traditional system of municipal and industrial water supply evolved as a locally planned, locally financed and locally operated system. The state participated in two very distinct ways. The Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) loaned money to finance many of these local projects and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issued the relevant water quality certifications and state permits needed for the project, chief among them, the associated water withdrawal permits.

The Governor's Water Supply Program is a real game changer in the area of water supply development in Georgia. Through this program, the state has provided low-interest loans to support traditional local water supply projects. In addition, through direct investment, the state will participate in projects that address a more broadly defined set of state and regional needs. Last month GEFA issued revised selection criteria for the Governor's Water Supply Program, which provide needed clarification regarding the State Direct Investment portion of the program.

As envisioned by the governor, the state can no longer remain a passive investor in local water supply projects. Water supply projects are costly. Where there are legitimate concerns over the potential impacts of multiple projects in a particular watershed, only a limited number of the projects should be constructed. Thus, this clarification does not mean that the state envisions any significant departure from Georgia's historic model for providing municipal and industrial water -- in most cases management by local authorities and governments. Rather, the most promising results should come in terms of the design and development of the water supply projects themselves, as opposed to who operates them.

Georgia leaders understand that stakeholders are inextricably connected via water basins. Therefore, if we are going to construct a water storage project, whether a surface water facility or an underground aquifer storage facility, we need to plan that facility with multiple purposes in mind. In addition to local municipal and industrial water supply, those purposes in some instances may include downstream flow support to address water quality concerns, threatened or endangered species needs, and other human and ecological needs. Projects might also be designed to operate augmentation flows in coordination with large existing federal multi-purpose facilities like lakes Lanier and Allatoona.

State investment in a limited number of critical, multipurpose facilities makes great sense from an overall water policy perspective and will produce better environmental and ecological results.

Judson H. Turner, director, Georgia Environmental Protection Division; www.gaepd.org.

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