Opinion Forum

State water plan will benefit all Georgians

Developing a state water plan that will serve all of Georgia presents a considerable challenge, which can be met only through thoughtful and informed deliberation.

Rather than contributing in that spirit, in his opinion piece published in the Ledger-Enquirer on May 27, Mr. James E. Butler Jr. portrays the comprehensive statewide water plan as a disaster promoting the burglary and embezzlement of much of the state’s economic future in the service of piping water to metro Atlanta. All this about a plan that has not been released and which he therefore has not read. Mr. Butler brought "charges" against the plan without any facts and declared it guilty without any trial.

Mr. Butler writes "that interbasin piping of water from distant rivers and aquifers to metro Atlanta will be allowed by the state water plan cannot be denied." The fact is that under state law interbasin transfers into the 16-county metro Atlanta area are unlawful, and the state water plan cannot alter state law. The state water plan will not allow interbasin transfer into metro Atlanta and it will not "mandate" such transfers. The policies that have been publicly discussed now for more than a year would put in place strict rules governing the approval by EPD of interbasin transfers among Georgia’s remaining 143 counties in which such transfers are legal.

If, as Mr. Butler writes, the beginning of wisdom is to call a thing by its right name, then the right name is not theft, but fear.

The fear is that Georgia would be crisscrossed with pipelines moving massive quantities of water to metro Atlanta at the expense of the rest of the state. However, the Legislature addressed this fear in 2001 by passing Senate Bill 130, which prohibits piping of water into the 16-county Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District. Today, fanning the smoldering embers of this issue in order to ignite fear about piping water to metro Atlanta diverts attention from Georgia’s real water issues.

The primary purpose of the state water plan is not, as Mr. Butler states, to legalize the piping of water to metro Atlanta. Such a plan would be dead on arrival in our Legislature. The primary purposes of the plan are to establish policies and rules that minimize withdrawals of water through water conservation and reuse, maximize return of water to the river of origin, assure sufficient and appropriate water supply, protect water quality from continued degradation by non-point source pollution, and to establish and guide regionally conducted water planning.

The state water plan will not myopically focus on the issues of metro Atlanta. Every region of Georgia faces serious challenges in identifying a sustainable long-term supply of water. For example, Brunswick and the Savannah region are experiencing salt water intrusion in the aquifer that supplies drinking water. Moreover, as the current drought is demonstrating, many small communities throughout Georgia are extremely vulnerable to the loss of water supply.

The plan will also propose policies that take aim at the growing degradation of water quality caused by runoff polluted with sediment and nutrients. Recently, more areas of Lake Lanier, Lake Allatoona and Carter’s Lake in north Georgia, and Lake Walter F. George downstream of Columbus, were added to the list of waters not meeting state water quality standards. The state water plan is being designed to provide policies that can comprehensively address present and future water resource challenges throughout the state.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Butler dismisses water conservation as "high-minded talk" and only in the context of somehow making interbasin piping acceptable. In fact, state policies that will compel and promote water conservation and reuse of reclaimed water are absolutely essential for all of Georgia’s metropolitan areas. Although water conservation is a critical component of water management for all metropolitan areas, water conservation alone will not guarantee water for the projected doubling of Georgia’s population within the next 25 years.

"Downstream" communities such as Columbus, Griffin, Macon, Dublin and communities even further downstream will benefit from proposed state policies that decrease the consumptive use of water and increase the return of water to flow downstream. Annually, about 70 percent of the water withdrawn from the Chattahoochee River by metro Atlanta counties is returned to the river. Given the large number of water suppliers and wastewater treatment facilities in this stretch of the Chattahoochee River basin, this is a relatively good return rate. But it can and will be improved under the policies being considered in the draft state plan.

I do not apologize for or excuse any waste of water. Inflammatory statements such as "unbelievable amounts of water are wasted in metro Atlanta now; even leaky pipes aren’t fixed because it is cheaper to just treat and pump more water" are not well informed. It is definitely not cheaper to treat and pump water than to repair leaks. Local governments in metro Atlanta, the state of Georgia and nationwide have long known that leak repair programs save large amounts money.

In 2001, metropolitan Atlanta had an estimated unaccounted-for-water rate (this includes leaks and improperly operating water meters) of 18 percent. This rate is typical of metropolitan areas throughout the nation. However, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District recognized that this rate, although typical, is not acceptable. The District’s 2003 Water Supply and Water Conservation Plan requires very aggressive leak detection and repair programs. Currently, 70 percent of the metropolitan Atlanta local governments (serving 90 percent of the metropolitan population) are implementing the aggressive leak detection and repair programs. Two stunning examples of success are the Cherokee Water and Sewer Authority, which has reduced its unaccounted-for-water to 8 percent, and the Clayton County Water Authority, which has reduced its water use from 104 gallons per person a day to 97 gallons per person per day since 2003 through leak detection and repair programs.

It is also important to note that, unique in Georgia, local government compliance with the Metro District Water Supply and Water Conservation Plan is mandatory. By state law, EPD cannot issue new or expanded water permits to any local government in the District unless the local government is implementing all the action items of the water plan, including leak detection and water conservation. EPD thoroughly audits local government for plan compliance.

On June 28, the draft state water plan will be released and available to all Georgians for a four-month public comment period. There has been nothing "hidden" in the open and transparent process that EPD used to gather advice and input on potential policies to be included in the plan. There is no lurking attempt at theft. Information on the planning process, background materials, and resources used in the development of the draft water plan are available at www.gadnr.org/gswp. Please read the draft plan before you judge it.