Power Comes with Control over Water; Water Management Plan Gives Authority over Natural Resource to EPD Director

Article excerpt

Byline: WALTER C. JONES

ATLANTA - For generations, some of the most powerful politicians in Georgia were in charge of deciding which roads got paved, both on the state and local level. Soon, they could be upstaged by water czars.

Until lately, water was plentiful in Georgia, but roads were scarce. Since roads have always been critical in transporting goods, their location determined the vitality of communities. Hence, there was ample reason to fight over who controlled road building, but no one on this side of the Mississippi worried much about control of water.

After all, the State Highway Department (later renamed the Department of Transportation) was created in 1916, while the Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources didn't exist until 35 years ago.

Over the decades, the highway commissioner usually was a well-connected politician who was expected to remember his friends once in the job.

The outgoing commissioner, Harold Linnenkohl, and Tom Moreland a decade before, were noteworthy for coming from the professional ranks of career engineers. Both feuded with the politicians and DOT board and saw their tenures shortened because of it.

Interestingly, Gov. Sonny Perdue's preference to replace Linnenkohl is neither a DOT veteran nor a politician. He favors Gena Abraham, head of the state Properties Commission, chief engineer of the Georgia Building Authority and a former engineering professor at Georgia Tech.

Of course, there are politicians reportedly interested in the job, including Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, former Rep. Mike Evans, R-Cumming, and former Rep. Chuck Harper, R-Carrollton.

If Abraham gets the nod, it will signal a shift in the political emphasis in the post just as another Perdue appointee is gaining more political sway in her position as EPD director. Like Abraham, Carol Couch holds a Ph.D. and also made her career outside of politics or the agency she heads.

Couch, a former scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, soon will control the state's water supply as outlined in a proposed Water Management Plan awaiting legislative approval. She promises to consider economic issues as well as scientific concerns when she determines who gets permits for water withdrawal or sewage treatment, which could be an invitation for politicians to recommend less-quantifiable/more persuasive-based reasons for making decisions.

As an indication of the scope of her elevated position, consider the dozens of formal comments submitted on the plan from trade organizations and environmental groups as diverse as textile firms to plumbing contractors. …