Editorial: Flint water crisis can't happen here? Think again

The longstanding interstate dispute over resources from two major river systems isn't the only "water war" involving Georgia. Another one that hasn't been going on nearly that long or received nearly as much attention could ultimately be of no less importance.

The fundamental premise in this one is that Georgia doesn't need another Flint. We're talking Flint, Michigan, of course, not the Flint River; we already have one of those, and it's the greater Valley area's "sister" stream in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin that drains much of Georgia.

But in the shadow of Michigan's toxic water woes, some Georgians are taking steps to guard against such problems here. They have some prominent and powerful allies -- and foes.

In a recent guest column published in business reporter Maria Saporta's blog, Georgia River Network Policy Director Chris Manganielllo observes that "clean water is not a given for many Georgians," and urges support for pending legislation to address those dangers.

Manganiello offers several troubling examples of danger spots -- high well-water arsenic levels in Grady County; multiple cancer cases in south Georgia that residents firmly believe are related to groundwater contamination; polluted groundwater near Macon that prompted officials to switch residents to city water -- without, the author says, trying to pin down what's polluting the water in the first place.

Under state law, Georgia streams are supposed to be protected by 25-foot natural buffers. It's a law Manganiello says protects both water and landowners' property values, but the state Environmental Protection Division lacks the resources to enforce it. (The case of a north Georgia company pouring toxic materials directly into a stream only a few hundred feet from where it flowed into the Chattahoochee is fresh in memory.)

Rep. Johnnie Caldwell Jr., R-Thomaston, is sponsoring legislation to define and enforce those buffer zones. Companion legislation in the Senate, introduced by Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, to protect aquifers and groundwater resources, passed in the 2015 session with only three "nay" votes.

Opposing those measures is a bill by Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough, that would, in Manganiello's words, "create an unworkable system by handcuffing local governments' ability to properly review plans for large developments, and in effect cause greater downstream property damage by allowing more mud in our rivers, lakes and streams." It would also eliminate more than two-thirds of the present legal window for construction/development application and plan review, from 45 to 14 days -- an absurdly inadequate time frame.

The threats to Georgia's surface waters are already familiar to most of us. The less visible, but at least as insidious, threats to aquifers and groundwater are beginning to manifest themselves in alarming ways. Our natural water supplies need more protection, not less.