Divided Interests on Water Policy; Such Interests Mean the Plan Serves as a Beginning, Rather Than an Ending

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Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE

ATLANTA - Even if the statewide water policy clears the few legislative hurdles remaining between the measure and Gov. Sonny Perdue's desk, its passage will not end the legislature's fluid debate on the precious resource.

The policy itself is far too vague for some, doesn't move aggressively enough for others, and yet governs a liquid that controls the economic fortunes of communities across the state.

"There will be additional legislation on water," House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, said during the Jan. 18 debate. "This is not our last conversation on water."

Not by a long shot.

Metro Atlanta legislators are pressing for a bill making it easier to build reservoirs and to build them more quickly. House and Senate members from downstream communities are urging the General Assembly to pass laws protecting their water supply from the thirst of the state's largest communities. And environmentalists don't trust assurances from Perdue's office that the state will pay for needed water planning to put the policy in place even if the budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, doesn't specifically include the expense.

A FLOOD OF BILLS

Most of the ideas currently floating through the capitol come from downstream lawmakers, who want assurances for their constituents that the policy isn't simply legal cover for a massive water grab by Atlanta, caught in the grips of a historic drought.

Among the list of concerns ticked off by critics of the plans are:

- The boundaries of water planning districts don't exactly mirror the state's river basins.

Lawmakers are concerned that the current districts often divide the upper portions of river basins from the lower parts and could dilute ability of downstream communities to counter metro Atlanta's plans.

The district including Atlanta straddles five of the state's six major river basins, upstream of much of the state.

"They will control those rivers, and if they decide to act to put a stranglehold on the flow down, there will be nothing, nothing that those of us downstream will be able to do about it," Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, said during the House debate.

Some legislators would redraw the boundaries to follow watersheds exactly, regardless of county lines, though no legislation to do that has been introduced. Others are looking at proposals that would spell out how counties could leave one district and join another.

- The plan conflicts with current state law.

Under the bill creating the Water Council - a panel of lawmakers, citizens and state agency heads that crafted the policy - the water plan is not supposed to conflict with state law.

But critics say it does just that, and worry that any differences between the law and the policy would be resolved in metro Atlanta's favor. They argue that several technical conflicts should have prompted lawmakers to make needed changes to the law before passing the policy. …