Deal urges progress on water projects

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gov.Nathan Deal said Monday it is time for the state to push ahead on the long road toward developing new sources of drinking water. But he said it must be local governments, not the state, taking the lead.

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Gov. Nathan Deal said water projects should spring from the needs of local communities, but he said there is plenty of room for the state to help them along.

“I do not want us to get into the business of being the water czars of the state,” he said.

Georgia, which has been locked in a legal dispute with its neighbors over the rights to water sources decades, must find a solution to provide drinking water for a steadily growing population.

Deal spoke at a meeting of the Water Supply Task Force, a panel of bureaucrats the governor convened to jump-start new water developments with $300 million in state bonds. The task force will spend the next six months devising a plan to prioritize and to help fund water supply projects around the state.

Deal said water projects should spring from the needs of local communities, but he said there is plenty of room for the state to help them along.

"As you know [local government] sometimes lacks the ability to do the planning that is necessary to do the projects and sometimes they lack the up-front resources to get these projects moving," he said.

While new reservoir development has gotten the most attention, task force Chairman Kevin Clark, executive director of the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority [GEFA], said all options are on the table, including water reuse and desalinization projects.

“We are going to look at everything we can,” he said. “We want the $300 million to have a clear impact.”

Deal has put $46 million in this year’s budget proposal to get the program started.

About $21 million will go to GEFA, which will hand out the money as low-interest loans for planning water projects. The Department of Community Affairs has $25 million, which can be used for the state to purchase an ownership share in local water projects.

The remainder of the cash will come in future budgets over the next four years.

The task force anticipates funding around a dozen "promising" water projects around the state. Documents supplied by the task force say the state may take a "time-limited" ownership stake in some of these projects, but "the state does not seek to own and operate water supply projects."

Environmental groups generally opposed to reservoirs are watching the effort intensely, and some expressed disappointment that water conservation projects were left off the agenda.

“We’ve maintained that the most cost-efficient projects to do in this area are water conservation and water efficiency,” said Gil Rogers, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “That has to be an option on the table due to the limited funds that are available.”

While the environmental groups focus on conservation, much more attention is being placed on new reservoir development.

Senate Bill 122 would allow local governments to build new reservoirs and water plants in partnership with private companies. The bill is sponsored by Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, who has pitched the bill as giving local governments added flexibility in funding water projects while maintaining ultimate control of them. The bill is before the House Government Affairs Committee today.

All of this comes as state officials are waiting to hear whether their appeal of a 2009 decision by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson limiting the use of Lake Lanier for drinking water will be granted. It also comes amid high-level talks between Georgia, Alabama and Florida to end the two-decade water war between the states.

Deal said negotiating teams have been meeting and he expressed relative optimism on their progress, especially on the dispute between Georgia and Alabama regarding the management of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system.

The governor said Georgia must move ahead to develop new sources of drinking water to support future growth.

“I don't think we can simply wait for those issues to resolve themselves in any format, either in the courts or through negotiations,” he said.